Building Peace in a World of Conflict

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by Nazid & Faiza Kimmie

This presentation was given at a Catholic Church in Melbourne, Australia, on September 29th 2004. The theme is “peace be upon you”; I've added my own subheading to that which is, “building peace in a world of conflict”. I chose that title not only because it is topical (I'll get to that a little later) but because the concept of ‘Peace” is multi-layered and takes on different meanings; there is no denying that it is at the core of any human relationship. “Peace be upon you” also forms part of the formal greeting that Muslims use to address each other everyday: Asalaamu alaykum - “Greetings and peace be upon you”. For me, peace is a mode of relationship whether it is between individuals, nations or indeed between different faiths, but it can only exist under certain conditions that I'll detail later.

Indeed the key motivating force for my attendance to such gatherings is to foster Peace; through meaningful, sincere relationships and to hopefully impart what knowledge I have of Islam to those who want to know. Those who attended our first such meeting some time ago may remember that we covered a myriad of topics on general aspects of Islam - a sort of crash course on Islam if you will. Please forgive me if I cover things you've already heard, or don't hesitate to stop me if you need clarification on anything. God willing, we'll field some questions at the end of this talk. The feeling at the end of that first meeting was very positive and fruitful, but despite our best intentions no further contact occurred. This of course is not anyone's fault, life is life and we must do the best we can, but it did get me thinking about this aspect of dialogue and what real peace means for all faiths. For everyday peoples all over the world going about our daily lives, we hope that Peace is not just a catch phrase used by politicians, but a reality that we would like to live.

For some of us, lucky to live in the relative safety and stability of Australia, Peace may be to simply walk down the street unharmed or to go shopping etc…but is Peace as they say, simply the absence of war? Intuitively I think we all know the answer to that, even though the ‘cynic’ in us may question it, but it is our ‘Faith’ that expands the ‘concept’ of Peace into the act of Peace. Therefore for me, peace is an action, but action made of what? There is NO peace I feel without Justice, there is NO peace without equality and there is NO peace without compassion or Mercy. How do these things come into our world to create what we ‘think’ is peace?

In Islam the holy Koran (which we believe to be the unchanged word of God), contains 99 attributes of God, or the 99 most beautiful names of God. These names are like a periodic table of reality that originates from the unseen, divine realm and are manifested into our earthly reality. One of these names is Ar-Rahim - The Merciful, another is Al-Adl (the Just), another Ar-Raoof (the Compassionate) and yet another As-Salaam (The source of Peace). There is a reliable account of what Muhmmad (PBUH) did and said (which is called a Hadith) that he said, “Allah (God) is Himself Peace”. So in Islam as it is in the other Abrahamic traditions God is the source of Peace, Mercy and Compassion.

Now of course God is the source of all these things, but what is it got to do with us? Now there's the rub! I mentioned the Abrahamic tradition just now and it's an important distinction to make because it denotes for Islam, Christianity and Judaism a common ancestral and spiritual origin (that is, a common ancestral origin - from the Patriarch of the believers, Prophet Abraham, or in Arabic Ebraheem. Viewed in this light it's no surprise that using the Abrahamic link has become a popular foil for pursuing interfaith dialogue. We may have theological differences, we may have points of departure, and we may have aspects which are diametrically opposed and may never be reconciled. But on this aspect of the Abrahamic tradition, we have common ground and I think cause to celebrate our rich monotheistic heritage. Which brings me back to my original question: how is this Peace, this Mercy and this Compassion manifested into our world? I think what is common to all the Abrahamic faiths is Justice and when God-conscious people enact Justice into the temporal world where there is so much injustice, then and only then can Peace, Compassion and Mercy come into play. A cursory understanding of Islam may deduce that Justice and the laws used to enforce it - or the role of Shariah law (a highly contentious issue to commentators in some Western countries) is predominant over even the virtues of peace and compassion. This of course like many aspects of Islam under question is a misconception, as I'll explain in a moment. There is a reason that the role of Justice is so particularly conspicuous in Islam. Just to give an example of the place of Justice in Islam I have some verses I'll read to you. This Sura or chapter from the Quran called An-Nisa (The Women) states about justice:

4.135 O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do. [Al-Qur'an, 4.135 An-Nisa (Women)]

And another example:

5.8 O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others to you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear Allah. For Allah is well acquainted with all that ye do. [Al-Qur'an, 5.8 Al-Maeda (The Table, The Table Spread)]

These are just a small sample of the many, many verses that deal with Justice or acting justly as something incumbent upon every believing man and woman, in fact it is central to all aspects of human interaction. Everything from, how to deal with other nations, the treatment of women and children, caring for orphans, distribution of wealth and even of animals in our care are covered by the Holy Quran and each is dealt with in terms of Justice. From this you can see that in Islam, Justice is central to peaceful Co-existence on any level. Why this emphasis on Justice? I'm not a biblical scholar but I know that Jesus (UHBP) brought with his teachings great compassion and mercy; not that justice was ignored but predominantly having a compassionate heart was central to his mission. The Koran says of Prophet Jesus (AS):

57.27” Then, in their wake, We followed them up with (others of) Our messengers: We sent after them Jesus the son of Mary, and bestowed on him the Gospel; and We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him Compassion and Mercy…” [Al-Qur'an, 57.27 Al-Hadid (The Iron)]

From this you can see that it's not that the elements of compassion and mercy are absent from Islam; nothing could be further from the truth. In fact all but one chapter of Quran begins with, ‘Bismillahi rahman nirahim’ (In the name of God most gracious most merciful). Muslims begin every undertaking in our lives with this statement. In the name of God most gracious most merciful. Herein lies a clue, many of the times that Ar-Rahim (Or Mercy) one of the 99 names of God I discussed earlier, are mentioned in the Quran, it is in direct reference to or in context to Allah or God the creator. So in this sense mercy is an action or an act of being that is sourced from God. The same applies to peace (As-Salaam). For the name Islam also comes from the Arabic root word for peace, but this state of peace is not fixed or something static that one attains by some magic formula, but being in a ‘state of Islam’ connotes an act of doing something. To become Muslim is very simple, one must just say sincerely. “Ashadu an La ilha illallah wa ashadu ana Muhamdur rassoololah” I bare witness that there is no other God but God and that Muhammad is His messenger”. That makes you technically a ‘Muslim’ or one that surrenders to the will of God, but its not being in the ‘state’ of Islam (or peaceful state), for that is an ongoing action or struggle that every believer must undertake until our last breath. So the point I'm trying to make is that Mercy and Peace are divine attributes that are NOT static states of being, for God alone is the unchanging and unchangeable source of these attributes. Which leaves human beings as God's Khalifa's (or representatives) to enact and bring forth into time and space these aspects - but only as actions or deeds that bring out the continuance and safeguarding of Mercy and Peace in our world - and what is this continuing safeguard? It is Justice. Justice is an attribute that stands on immutable truth, it forms the bulwark that allows Mercy and Peace to survive. For as ennobling and desirable as they are, we witness far too often that mercy and peace are very fragile and without an atmosphere of Justice - Peace is simply just the absence of war and not a living reality.

For Muslims, Justice is an irreducible state that must exist before any ‘meaningful’ peace or dialogue can begin. When Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was establishing his fledgling state in the deserts of Arabia one of the first things he did as head of that state was to send ambassadors and accept delegations from neighbouring nations and religious bodies to sign treaties. For him, peaceful co-existence with others without a sense of justice could not grant security for anybody. In fact, so great was his sense of justice that when he was finally granted victory over the idolatrous clan of Mecca (many of which were his own family) and he entered the city with barely any loss of life. To the amazement of the inhabitants of Mecca no revenge was taken and they were treated with utmost courtesy and justice. Such was his leadership and humanity. Which is the entire opposite that we witness today; today peace is a by word for continuing subjugation of the world's poorest and most disadvantaged people. Peace, is a formal treaty to guarantee trade so as to protect the economies of the worlds richest nations, whilst those that they ‘trade’ with live in continuing sufferance and economic servitude. Peace, means to buy some time so that any form of compromise can be avoided lest we look ‘weak’ in the eyes of the world.

For Muslims and indeed those of the Abrahamic tradition our Scripture is the moral framework on which we are guided to do Justice. For all Muslims the Quran is the divine injunction that forms the guiding principles of Justice for it is God's word and as explained previously, provides the context for all other attributes including Peace and Mercy to evolve in our hearts. Here, we also share the same challenges as well. As much as the ‘Age of reason’ and the enlightenment have given western civilisation unimaginable wealth and material comfort we are still very poor - for our society has become spiritually impoverished because we have tried to negate the role of God in the moral patterning of the nation state. Don't get me wrong; I'm not bashing secular humanism wholesale, I'm merely pointing out where it has failed. Granted it has provided egalitarian societies to emerge and to Co-exist but as the state of the world shows us the wheels are beginning to fall off this materialist cart. So with that little disclaimer, I'll continue that with this negation of the role of God we have a moral vacuum and thus Justice is absent from the equation. Without the protective shield of Justice rampant desire and rapacious greed have entered peoples hearts instead of the attributes of mercy and compassion - a state of Peace is missing. That's the bad news! But there is some good news too.

Despite this inhospitable climate, where material existence is given precedence over the spiritual, God's light has not been extinguished. You must be congratulated and encouraged that you are here tonight, to hear an alternative story and to know that in times of despair there is hope. I mentioned a minute ago that Peace and Mercy under the right conditions can evolve in the heart, this is no small thing. In fact the human ‘heart’ - is the spiritual centre and crucible of the soul and is often discussed in Islam for it is the terrain where all human joy and suffering emerge. In a well-documented saying the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) once said:

“Beware, in the body there is a piece of flesh; if it is sound the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupt then the whole body is corrupt and that is the heart.”

In the Islamic spiritual tradition there are many sciences that serve to teach a person about the religion, from the stages of childhood to whatever spiritual station that person is blessed with as an adult. There is a science of religious practices and laws - (this is known as Shariah), there are sciences to teach the life of the Prophet, and how to read the Quran and so on. But there is also a science that teaches one how to improve the state of ones heart, to help cleanse it from the bad habits or other distractions and to return it to its naturally pure state. For in Islam we believe that every human being is born into a naturally good and pure state, a state of pure submission to the will of God. Therefore in essence everyone is born a Muslim. This naturally pure state or disposition in Arabic is called Fitrah. All babies are born in this state of Fitrah - free from sin and distraction. It is our culture, upbringing and other environmental elements that shape what type of adult we become, whether we have faith or no faith and even what religion we practice. The heart that is pure is like a radio tuned into the right wavelength so that it only picks up what God is telling it. The great Islamic scholars and mystics refer to the heart as a mirror that reflects God's light and divine attributes. However over time this mirror becomes covered in rust, which is the collection of personality traits, acquired habits and patterns of thought, which we come to believe as being our ‘self’ or our sense of ‘I’.

In Arabic this sense of ‘I’ and ‘me’ is called the ‘Nafs’, these nafs are unique to each person and shape our journey toward understanding God and ultimately our place on this earth. The great personal struggle for each person or ‘Jihad’ - Jihad translates as a struggle for God's sake, not just Holy war as some have interpreted it. This Jihad is to cleanse the mirror of the heart from the negative aspects of our nafs - our lower selves. When this rust is removed from our hearts then God's attributes of Mercy, compassion, Love and all the other combinations of God's attributes can manifest in the heart and then influence the world around us.

Such a clean heart by the will of God can create Justice into the world with acts of sincere compassion and mercy. Such a heart is in the state of ‘Islam’ a state of peace by willing surrender to the source of all compassion and peace. This inner science is quite literally at the heart of what Islam is and what our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was trying to impart upon the world; that God is one, that the spiritual realm is real and we have a heart that is a nexus point between this world and spiritual realm and that heart can compel us to find good or bad. Finally God will judge the condition of our heart and our deeds and we will be held accountable for them.

Its important to understand what I've discussed so far in regards to the role of Justice and the science of cleaning ones heart in Islam. Its important because misunderstandings have lead to my next and final topic of contention and that is the nature of violence in Religion and in particular with current world events, the use of religion to justify political motives. I mentioned earlier the importance of Justice and that for Muslims the arbiter and guide for justice is the Quran and its laws and the example of the Prophet or the Sunna. The categorisation and interpretation of these laws by classically trained and authorised Scholars is called the Shariah. This has become a bone of contention in many arguments about the so-called ‘clash of civilisations’ because as Muslims we are compelled to follow the Shariah, but as Muslims living in a Non-Muslim society we must obey the laws of that society - can these two ‘systems’ be compatible? From the start I must assert that the Shariah is not in itself a political ‘system’ nor was the Prophet Muhammad ever described as a ‘Political leader’. He was like all Prophets and messengers before him, a reviver and a renewer of Monotheism he came to cleanse hearts and to create Justice for all peoples. It is first and formost a spiritual system, whose impact affects all facets of life. So in this context I do believe that these two ‘ways’ of living can co-exist.

That is not to say the Islam was never abused and made a foil for political conquest - unfortunately like any great civilisation we've had just leaders and unjust leaders. But to expand that by saying that Islam “was spread by the sword “ is a great injustice. Today the most populated Islamic nation in the world is Indonesia; Islam reached there not through conquest but by the sincere efforts of Muslim traders and Saints that visited the region. Today unfortunately, there has arisen the phenomenon of ‘political Islam’ or some might call fundamentalist Islam, but I find that an inaccurate term. This Political Islam has its sociological roots in ‘identity politics’, where spirituality is substituted by empty slogans and more sinisterly used to justify acts of indiscriminate violence. This is a recent phenomenon in the cultural history of Islam and its roots and reasons are varied and complex and would constitute many talks to explain it fully. I will condense it the best I can by saying that this ‘identity politics’, is a process of trying to redefine and solidify the rather fluid multi-cultural landscape that makes up all Islamic peoples and is an attempt to create a single homogenous entity. The Quran shows Muslims that we are a single community, united in our faith - but not as a homogenous entity or modern nation state, this is a fairly recent phenomenon. It's also a concept foreign to the culturally diverse face of Islam. In the past when Islam has spread to new regions, the indigenous culture of the people of that region was not eradicated, but those aspects of the culture not in opposition to the basic tenets of the religion were integrated and become part of the wider cultural identity. That is why today you can find an Indonesian, or Turkish or even an American Indian expression of Islam, one that does not deny the intrinsic cultural flavour nor compromise the essentials of the religion. These attempts at politicalisation of our faith have tried to enforce a rather spiritually one dimensional, and intolerant interpretation of Islam that would rather deny our rich cultural heritage.

So what has caused this mono-cultural, monolithic expression of ‘politicised Islam? Aspects of post colonialism and modern industrialisation in traditional cultures have caused anxiety in those nations where this change was too swift and in some cases the changes were marked with violence and oppression, the scars of which are still felt to this day. Allied with this is the isolated rise of unauthorised scholarship. This unauthoritative and unlicensed scholarship is not rooted in the 1400 year classical tradition; where sacred knowledge was taught from one living heart to another, forming a chain of wisdom that has passed down through time from teacher to student leading all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Instead there are ideologues without this traditional knowledge passing fatwa's (religious rulings) on subjects they have incomplete knowledge of and/or lack the proper authority to pass judgement on. Fortunately, they are a minority and do not represent the majority of Muslims who are moderate and peace loving. Less fortunate perhaps for both our own community and the wider non-Muslim society is that they have commanded the attention of the disenfranchised youth in countries who are socio-economically disadvantaged and subscribe to more ‘revisionists’ implementations of the Shariah, hearkening for some glorious past to help fix their condition. All of this of course makes for a much more entertaining sound bite in our media. The causes are much more complex than I've described, but they highlight some of the challenges and ‘conditions’ that give rise to such radical elements. I believe that it is the collective responsibility of all people of good faith, Muslim and non-Muslim to reflect upon this and to act responsively, in a spirit of mutual trust and justice. This is my sincere hope.

I have watched events in the last few months with the same shock and revulsion as you have. For the majority of Muslims it has perhaps been an added sorrow that those claiming to be of us have conducted such atrocious acts in the name and spirit of Islam. I can only state unequivocally that the indiscriminate killing of innocent children, civilians and non-combatants of any race, creed or religion is absolutely forbidden and against the very spirit of Islam. I must ask myself, to those who carry out such violence - are they in the state of Islam? In a state of peace and surrender? Some are fighting for a mythical ‘Islamic state’, but are they fighting their lower selves (their nafs) to be in a State of Islam? In this spirit we must also remember those innocents caught up in this ‘war on terror’, or caught in cycles of violence in many parts of the world for no other reason than that they are different. They are the faceless ‘other’ who may just happen to fit the label of ‘Muslim’ or ‘terrorist’ or whatever the powers that be label them and I ask whether those responsible for bombing and killing these people are striving to be in a state of peace as well? If you take the time to ponder some of what I've said tonight, then I leave that answer up to you.

In closing I offer that we are entering a new and precarious age for the building of a lasting, genuine peace. It may not be ‘the most ideal’ model but it may offer some hope for the Abrahamic traditions to go forth without prejudice or the emotional baggage of the past. I pray that God allows us the understanding to see beyond our differences and places mercy, gratitude and grace in our hearts. May our continued meeting ignite new dialogue and redefine the social and geographic boundaries between the so-called ‘East’ and ‘West’ - these terms generalise one people in the eyes of the other. Instead may we see ourselves as a global family and as the Quran postulates that we are ‘Bani Adaam’ the tribe of Adam and the spiritual heirs of Abraham:

49.13 O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).

The road ahead toward true peace is shrouded with ominous clouds of uncertainty and fear, let us not give in into this fear. Instead let us discover the spiritual heritage that links us, let us enact justice towards all that face injustice, to stand up for those without a voice no matter what creed, nationality or religion. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was once asked, “What is the greater Jihad?” He responded, ‘To speak the truth against tyrants’. Mercy and Peace may be fragile, but the heart that is cleansed and reflects God's light can endure and face the challenges ahead. This is my own personal Jihad - my personal struggle to overcome the ‘diseases’ of the heart so that I may become and instrument for this hope. A hope that when realised - God willing will see all the children of Abraham, (the tribes of Adam) sit together in mutual peace and respect. Then and only then, can the real interfaith dialogue begin, until such a time with your help and by God's will, let us build together the bridge towards a real peace.

May God bless you.

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