God mentions the origins of the pilgrimage, when He orders Abraham: “Proclaim the pilgrimage to humanity; they will respond, coming to the Sacred House on foot, riding every possible conveyance; coming from every distant path.” (Quran 22:27) It is related that Abraham responded by saying, “My Lord! How can I call all of humanity when my voice will not carry that far?” It is then related that God caused the mountains to bow low in humility, and Abraham’s voice traveled to the far corners of the Earth. Thereupon, every animate and inanimate creation responded, along with those who had been decreed to make the pilgrimage until the Day of Resurrection, proclaiming, “We are responding in your dutiful service, O God!”
In choosing Abraham to make that awesome call, God honored him greatly. He further honored him with one of the most profound descriptions ever given to a human being. He says, “Truly Abraham was a nation, devoutly obedient to God. Naturally inclining towards the true faith, he was not amongst the idolaters. He was abundantly thankful for the blessings God bestowed upon him. He chose him, and guided him to a Straight Way.” (Quran 16:120-121)
God describes Abraham as a nation. One interpretation is that he was a repository of all good human traits and virtues. During his long and distinguished life, Abraham demonstrated characteristics such as chivalry, patience, honesty, loyalty, hospitality, graciousness, and most importantly, an uncompromising commitment to upholding the Oneness of God. As he was, so should we be. We should exert our utmost to embody these and other prophetic virtues. Furthermore, we should realise that it is our duty to call humanity to these virtues. God orders us, “Let there arise from you a community calling to all that is good.” (3:104)
Abraham was naturally inclined towards the worship of God, and a strict monotheist. The magnitude of this characteristic is brought home to us when we realize that Abraham was alone in a world of idolatry. Despite that, he was prepared to sacrifice his life to defend and uphold the standard of the Oneness of God. In his days, the idols that people worshipped were idols of wood and stone. Today, the idols people worship have changed. However, we should be opposed to idol worship nonetheless, especially when that worship, in its modern manifestations, is proving destructive to individuals and societies.
The modern and postmodern conditions have bequeathed unto humanity an array of “idols” which are worshipped besides God. Perhaps the greatest idol arising from our condition is the individual’s worship of himself. In what sociologist Christopher Lasch describes as a “culture of narcissism,” it is easy to appreciate the penetrating question asked by God in the Quran, “Have you not seen the one who has taken his vain inclinations as his god?” (45:23)
The havoc being wreaked on the western psyche and soul by a pervasive narcissism is beginning to manifest itself in the traditional Muslim homelands. Much of that damage can be traced to the pervasiveness of western culture, a pervasiveness which has not emerged from a congruent belief and social system. In other words, what we see in the Muslim homelands is the tree of western culture grafted onto Islamic roots. Such a tree is destined to produce the sort of societal dysfunction and anomie we see prevailing in most Muslim countries.
We can see the extent of this pervasiveness when we consider, for example, that the political institutions that guide Islamic movements and self-proclaimed Islamic governments are actually western institutions. We fight our battles using western military technology and tactics. We are educated in institutions patterned along those in the West. Increasingly, most of the urban population is housed in western-styled, cement apartment blocks. The people wear western clothing; they cultivate the land according to western agricultural techniques. They work in western-styled factories—usually subsidiaries of western multinationals. Those who can afford to, eat in western restaurants such as McDonalds, KFC, or local imitations of the same. They spend billions of dollars smoking and cultivating tobacco, a destructive habit popularised in the West. They spend greater billions on soft drinks, even when it affects their ability to purchase food and drink of real nutritional value for their families. They take their sick to hospitals built and administered according to western models, utilising western medicines and surgical techniques. They squander valuable time watching meaningless programs on television sets pioneered in the West, when not reading newspapers that utilise western journalistic techniques and advertising practices, or playing sports developed in the West. They relax to what is essentially western music, even though for the time being, most of the lyrics are still in eastern tongues. Even the intelligentsia is unified by western languages, English or French—not Arabic. In such a cultural milieu, it would be difficult to expect that Islam would have a deep impact on the lives of ordinary people.
We do not intend for this article to become a pointless diatribe against the West. However, many of the problems facing humanity, such as crushing national debts, grinding poverty, growing disparities between the rich and the poor, the continued and accelerating destruction of the environment, and our exponentially enhanced ability to kill each other with increasingly sophisticated and deadly weaponry, are all facilitated by an international environment shaped by increasingly hegemonic western institutions. As Muslims, we should have the vision and courage—Abrahamic courage—to work for a world that while acknowledging and benefiting from the many positive advancements bequeathed to humanity by western materialist civilisation, work to minimise the damage caused by its negative and darker innovations.
Abraham was also described as being grateful for the many gifts and blessings bestowed upon him by God. We read in the Quran, “He (Abraham) was abundantly grateful for the blessings God had bestowed upon him.” (16:120-121) Graciousness should have an exalted place in the life of every Muslim. As Muslims living in western lands, we have more to thank God for than any other group of Muslims on earth. We have experienced the fullness of the meaning conveyed by the following verse, “He has completed His Blessings upon you, in open and hidden ways.” (Quran 31:20)
Were we to attempt to enumerate or express the magnitude of those blessings, we would not be able to do so. Among the open blessings we could mention are food, drink, potable water, sanitation, health, wealth, shelter, clothing, security, education, and despite certain well well-publicized abuses, the overwhelming majority of us live under the protection of the law. Among the hidden blessings, we could mention understanding, discernment, psychological stability, and faith—the greatest blessing of all.
All of these blessings, and countless others we could mention, are subordinate to two other blessings, which are frequently completely taken for granted, the blessing of existence, and the blessing of sustenance. Ibn ‘Ata-Allah expresses the immensity of those blessings in the following penetrating words, “There are two blessings that are not extraneous to anything in existence, and that are indispensable for every form of creation: the blessing of origination, and the blessing of sustentation.” No matter what heights of arrogance and ingratitude a human being may reach, there is no one who will go so far as to claim that he has brought himself into existence, or that she sustains her own life.
Therefore, we should fervently and without stint express our gratitude to our Lord. Imam Ghazali, a famous Muslim scholar, mentions that graciousness consists of knowledge, a state, and action. As for knowledge, it is a firm knowledge of the one who bestows all gifts, God. As for the state, it is the delight which ensues because of His bestowing the gift. As for the action, it is undertaking that which is sought and beloved by God—namely, pure, unadulterated worship and devotion.
So let us go forward and rededicate ourselves to the worship of God and the service of humanity. Let us thank God for the many blessings He has bestowed upon us with every ounce of energy we can muster, from the bottom of our hearts, and from the depths of our soul. Let us also remember, that God does nothing in vain. Our being Muslim at this critical juncture in history is not without purpose. Our existence here is part of a divine plan, and the deeper our understanding of that plan, the deeper our realisation of the tremendous responsibility we shoulder. Our situation presents us with staggering challenges, and places before us daunting work. However, if we take up those challenges with the courage, determination, vision, and patience which availed Abraham throughout his life, like him, we may be blessed to change the course of history.
(This article was first published in EMEL magazine. Reprinted with permission from Imam Zaid Shakir.)