Bonding with America…..
Akhlaq e Amrikiye
A Manual for the Survival of Muslims in America (6 of 7)
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
It was November 2007. The Elijah institute of Jerusalem organized an international conference of world religious leaders in Amritsar, India. It was presided over by the Dalai Lama, the head of millions of Tibetan Mahayana Buddhists and was attended by world leaders from the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim faiths. I was invited to attend as a Muslim leader from the United States and India.
In my presentation before this select group with an audience of thousands, I explained the Islamic concept of Ehsan as a vehicle for cross-cultural understanding. I told them an old story I had heard many years ago, of the king, the grand vizier and the long ladles. “I need you to know myself” I said in my concluding remarks. “Each faith needs the other to know itself. In a shrinking world, the day is not far when a Jew becomes the keeper of a Christian, a Christian the keeper of a Muslim, a Muslim the keeper of a Hindu, a Hindu the keeper of a Sikh and a Sikh the keeper of a Jew”.
As an introduction to this Section on Akhlaq e Amrikeye, I would like to share the story of the king, the grand vizier and the long ladles with our distinguished readers.
In the distant past, there lived a king in a land not unlike our own. His kingdom was vast and rich, extending from ocean to ocean. God had blessed his realm with rich soil and plentiful rain. Snows melted from the tall mountains forming rivers that irrigated the lush plains. Fountains gushed forth from the earth creating streams that laced the land. Gardens graced the kingdom from one end to the other. There was plenty of fruit and the crops were bountiful.
Yet the people were unhappy. The crops were bountiful but there was hunger in the land. The bazaars had plenty of produce but the merchants cheated. The functionaries of the king drew huge salaries but they extracted bribes. The priests said their prayers loud for all to hear but they preached hatred. The guards had become thieves and the guardians of morals had become the worst offenders of morals. Women were often abused and the children were abducted and sold in faraway lands for pittance.
The king summoned the grand vizier. “Why are my subjects so unhappy”, asked the king of the vizier. “God has given my land plentiful rain and abundant crops but the people are poor and hungry. The mosques and temples are overflowing with worshippers. Yet there is hatred at every corner. Why is that so?”
The grand vizier reflected for a moment, the furrows on his wizened, old face deepening into pensive curves. “Sire”, replied the vizier, “Grant me a favor, if it so pleases your majesty, and I will demonstrate why it is that there is so much misery in the land”.
“Ask, and you shall be heard” replied the king.
“Sire”, continued the vizier, “grant me two banquets which you will grace with your presence. And I will bring forth for you the malaise that eats up your majesty’s realm”.
The king was puzzled. “What does this wise old man have up his sleeve”, he thought. But he had confidence in the judgment of his vizier. “Let it be so!” declared the king.
The day for the first banquet was fixed. Royal heralds were dispatched to the towns in the far flung realm with the public announcement that the king was hosting a royal banquet for the officials and the professional religious men who officiated at the prayers in the temples, churches and the mosques.
On the appointed day came the professional priests and the functionaries, on their donkeys and their horses, dressed in their best, their moustaches trimmed and their beards tended. They decorated their horses and adorned their donkeys to look their best and gathered at the door of the banquet hall, pushing and shoving each other to get to the front of the line.
The vizier arrived, surveyed the crowd and to test their ego, asked each of them, “Who is the leader among you?”
To a man, each one answered, “I am. I am the chief among all these people. I deserve to sit next to the king.”
The king was ushered in from a side door, away from the crowd, and was seated on a golden dais. The door was opened for the officials and the priests. They barged in, like an unruly horde, trampling upon one another to get close to the king. Chairs were toppled and there was bedlam.
The king watched in silence, wondering why the vizier had invited such an unruly mob into his presence. The vizier ordered everyone to be seated so the food could be served.
And the food was served, in large bowls of silver. The sweet aroma of the dishes from the royal kitchen filled the hall. Then the spoons were brought in. Each spoon was in actuality a four feet long ladle. The professional men of religion and officials of the kingdom grabbed the ladles, shoving them into the faces of the men seated next to them, poking those across the table, spilling the food onto their turbans and all over their clothes. It was a total mess.
The king looked at the vizier in baffled amusement. Sensing that the king was irked, the vizier approached him and whispered into his ear, “Sire, one more banquet, if your majesty would so please. I need one more banquet to demonstrate why the morals in your majesty’s kingdom are so low.”
The next week, the word went out that the king would host another banquet, this time for the saleheen, the faqirs and the saints who lived on the outskirts of town, spending their time in the remembrance of God, earning their rizq by the sweat of their brows and serving fellow man.
On the appointed day, came the saleheen, on foot, in their clean, white, long flowing robes. Their hearts were as free of blemish as were their robes. As they arrived at the door of the banquet hall, they greeted each other, “salaamu alaikum”, and stood with folded hands one behind the other.
The vizier arrived and asked the man at the head of the line, “Who among you is the leader?”
“Salaam ya sayyedi! (Peace be with you, O Chief!) My brother behind me is my leader”, answered the man.
The vizier then asked the second man, “Are you the leader of these men?”
“My brother behind me is my leader,” answered the second man.
And so it went, until the vizier asked the last man in the queue, “Who is the leader among you?”
“Did you not meet him?” came the answer, “he is the one at the head of the line.”
The king was ushered in from a side door and was seated on the royal dais. The doors to the banquet hall were flung open. The saleheen, entered, one at a time, with great humility and respect, bowing to the king. And they were seated one after the other, the first man moving on and occupying the last seat, while the man who had arrived last occupied the first seat next to the king.
The royal dishes were served and the long ladles were brought out. The man at the head of the table said, “Bismillah” (In the Name of God). Each man carefully reached out for a ladle and with great care fed the person across the table. “I need you, my brother,” each said to the other. Not a drop was spilled and not a turban ruffled. They fed each other, in silence, savoring each grain as a blessing from the heavens, until the man at the end of the table concluded by saying, “Shukr Allah” (Thanks be to God).
The king looked at the vizier and the vizier bowed. “Men and women of akhlaq (character) feed the other before they gorge their own stomachs” said the vizier to the king. “They care for others before they care for themselves. There is corruption in the land because the professional men of religion have ceased to be servants of God. They have become servants of their own egos. Religion has degenerated into ritual and official position has become a license to steal. Men of religion have become preachers of hate and those who were hired to serve have become agents of exploitation.” The king nodded his head in approval. He had understood the secret of the long ladles.
The following day, the king issued a firman (royal decree): “Henceforth in my realm, every person must feed the other before he feeds himself.”
The Dalai Lama liked my concluding comment, “I need you to know myself”. On his way out, he grabbed me by the hand and said, “I liked what you said. Please join me in my chambers with my PA and my assistants.” It was a modest chamber, fit for a spiritual leader, with a prayer niche in a corner and five wooden chairs arranged around a small round table. Seated to my right, the Dalai Lama held a spiritual discourse about Ehsan for an entire hour, holding the palm of my right hand with both of his hands and rubbing it all the while. I was impressed with the erudition of this man of piety and his deep knowledge of Islam and other faiths.
“Indeed, Allah commands Justice and Ehsan”, declares the Qur’an. The principles of justice and Ehsan form the foundation of Akhlaq e Amrikeye.
What is Ehsan? Asked by the Archangel Jibrael to explain Ehsan, the Prophet said: “It is to worship (serve) Allah as if you see Him. And if you do not see (Him), then know that Allah is ever-present and He sees you.”
Ehsan is the fruit of faith. It has at least five dimensions: worship, service, excellence, benevolence and beauty. All five of them are components of Akhlaq.
Ehsan as worship is to live up to the ideal enunciated in the Hadith. It is to look forward to worship with enthusiasm, to prepare for it with sincerity, to stand and pray as a supplicant with humility, to listen to the words of the Qur’an so that the heart trembles in resonance with the rhythm of the divine Word, to pray as if one is a witness before Allah, in short to bond one’s heart with His Name and His presence.
Ehsan is to serve God’s creation as it is its right (haq) to be served. This includes service to one’s parents, family, neighbors, the poor, the mendicants, the wayfarers, those who ask and those who do not ask, the community, the nation, humankind, to discharge the human Trusteeship over flora and fauna, plants, animals, the air, the earth and the oceans, to manage them with wisdom and balance.
Excellence is the hallmark of Ehsan. It embraces every noble human activity. It is the distinguishing characteristic of successful people who attain falah (spiritual and material well-being). Thus, a mother excels in her love of her children and the moral nourishment of her family. A father excels in his compassion for his family, supporting and sustaining them. A scholar excels in acquiring and dispensing knowledge. A student excels in his studies. A teacher excels in teaching and molding character. An entrepreneur excels in the execution of his business plans. A doctor delivers the best medical care. An engineer designs and builds systems that meet and exceed requirements. A businessman delivers the best products and services on time. An employee excels in his performance. In other words, a mohsin endeavors to excel in every activity he is engaged in whether it be worship, family life, civic affairs, human rights, justice and stewardship of the divine Trust over the “heavens and the earth”.
Benevolence is kindness, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, grace, empathy, consideration, open-heartedness, lending a helping hand to lessen the burden on the other. It is related that the Caliph Omar walked around the streets of Madina at night to find out if anyone needed his help. One night he came across an old lady who was struggling to carry a heavy stack of wood on her head. In the darkness of the night the lady did not recognize the Caliph. Omar (r) asked for permission, carried the wood on his own head and delivered it to her house. That was benevolence. As another illustration, it is related that an unexpected guest arrived at the house of Ali (r) just as he was sitting down for the evening meal. There were only a few dates in the house, scarcely enough for one person. Ali asked the guest to join him for the meal, gave his food to the guest, extinguished the candle and pretended that he too was eating so that the guest would not see that Ali had no food. That was benevolence.
Ehsan derives from the trilateral root word ha-sa-na, meaning beauty. It is based on Asma ul Husna, the most beautiful Names of God. There are 99 divine names mentioned in the Qur’an. The Sufis who see the Name of God written on every creation, say that the Names of God are countless, immeasurable, unfathomable, infinite. Islamic civilization has attempted to capture this beauty in art and architecture, in the written and spoken word, in Rubayiat and Qawwali, in arabesque and carpets, in the design of mosques and madrassas, in the layout of gardens and bridges, in fabrics, utensils and calligraphy, reflecting the harmony of a soul at peace in the presence of God with the supernal geometry inherent in creation. It is this beauty that speaks to us through the Registan of Samarkand, the Jamia’ of Esfahan, the blue mosque of Istanbul, the Badshahi mosque of Lahore and the Taj Mahal of Agra.
The lessons for the American Muslim are clear. To survive and prosper in a hostile world, he must learn to become a Mohsin. For him, the horizons are limitless. The greatest work of art is yet to be created, the most sublime word is yet to be composed, the most beautiful building is yet to be erected, and the greatest knowledge is yet to be unlocked. The existential self of humankind is yet to be realized in the matrix of God’s creation. Love must ultimately find its goal. The quest is ceaseless, eternal. The Qur’an declares: “O humankind! You are indeed engaged in a relentless struggle to find your Creator; Wherefore, you shall find Him” (84:6).