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Bridge Building & Promoting Peace Among People

The following is a transcript from a speech delivered by Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari at an Interfaith Conference in Tonalestate, Italy on 5th August 2015.

I greet you with the Muslim greeting, Assalamu Alaykum, Peace Be Upon You.

I would like to begin by recounting a story from early Islamic history, of one Jafar ibn Abi Talib who, with his wife, was among the first people to accept Islam.

The Quraysh tribe made life intolerable for both of them and their brethren in faith in Makkah (current Saudi Arabia). They tried to obstruct and prevent them from observing the rites of Islam. The Quraysh waylaid them at every turn and severely restricted their freedom of movement. To seek refuge, a group of early Muslims left Makkah for Abyssinia (current Ethiopia) to live under the care and protection of the Negus, the just and righteous ruler of Abyssinia, a devout Christian. Once there, for the first time since they had become Muslims, they enjoyed the taste of freedom and security as well as the undisturbed sweetness of worship.

Two Makkan emissaries were sent to secure their extradition, and they said to the Negus: “O King, there is a group of evil persons from among our youth who have escaped to your kingdom. They practice a religion that neither you nor we know. They have forsaken our religion and have not entered into your religion. The respected leaders of their people – from among their own parents and uncles and from their own clans – have sent us to you to request you to return them. They know best what trouble they have caused.”

The Negus looked towards his bishops who then said: “They speak the truth, O King. Their own people know them better and are better acquainted with what they have done. Send them back so that they themselves might judge them.”

The Negus was not happy with this suggestion and said: “No. By God, I will not surrender them to anyone until I myself call them and question them about what they have been accused. If what these two men have said is true, then I will hand them over to you. If however it is not so, then I shall protect them so long as they desire to remain under my protection.”

The Negus then summoned the Muslims to meet him and asked: “What is this religion which you have introduced for yourself and which has served to cut you off from the religion of your people? You also did not enter my religion, nor the religion of any other community.”

Jafar ibn Abi Talib then advanced forward and made a moving and eloquent speech which is still seen today as one of the most compelling descriptions of Islam, the appeal of the noble Prophet and the condition of the Makkan society at the time. He said: “O King, we were a people in a state of ignorance and immorality, worshipping idols and eating the flesh of dead animals, committing all sorts of abomination and shameful deeds.” We remained in this state until God sent us a Prophet, one of our own people whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness and integrity were well known to us. “He called us to worship Allah alone and commanded us to speak the truth, to honour our promises, to be kind to our relations, to be helpful to our neighbours, to cease all forbidden acts, to abstain from bloodshed, to avoid obscenities and false witness, not to appropriate an orphan’s property nor slander chaste women.”

“We believed in him. Thereupon, O King, our people attacked us, inflicted the severest punishment on us to make us renounce our religion and take us back to the old immorality and the worship of idols.” So we left for your country, choosing you before anyone else, desiring your protection and hoping to live in justice and in peace in your midst.”

The Negus, impressed and eager to hear more, asked Jafar: “Do you have with you something of what your Prophet brought concerning God?” “Yes,” replied Jafar.

“Then read it to me,” requested the Negus. Jafar, in his rich, melodious voice recited for him the first portion of Surah Maryam (Mary) which deals with the story of Jesus (upon him be peace) and his mother Mary.

The Negus was moved to tears. To the Muslims, he said: “The message of your Prophet and that of Jesus came from the same source…” To the Qurayshi emissaries, he said: “Go. For, by God, I will never surrender them to you” and to Jafar and his companions following further questioning he replied: “Go, for you are safe and secure. Whoever obstructs you will pay for it and whoever opposes you will be

punished. For, by God, I would rather not have a mountain of gold than that anyone of you should come to any harm.”

From this account, one can draw many points: the appreciation of shared values, the acknowledgement of common interests and the building of inclusive communities through a collective endeavour. To be a truly representative people we are obliged to listen to each other and to learn how to work together to fulfil our collective obligations and realise the strengths of our diversity. Dialogue and collaborating with people in goodness are intrinsic in Islamic faith, as evidenced by the story of Jafar.

As we build bridges of understanding we introduce ourselves to one another, thereby clarifying misunderstandings and correcting much of the myths that pervade society today. Peaceful co-existence becomes a reality among multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-faith people when we understand and appreciate one another’s way of life and culture. Inter-faith relations are not about changing other people’s faith or way of life, but about gaining a level of understanding and respecting one another.

As with Jafar’s companions, Europe’s Muslims are a relatively young community and many of them come with a rich diversity of heritages. A ‘community of communities’, Muslims have been, and are, united through strong ties of faith identity that transcend ethnic boundaries. It is the moral and ethical principles of their faith that urges them to be concerned and responsible citizens and active participants in the life of their nation. In many respects the needs and aspirations of European Muslims are no different from those of other fellow citizens – whatever their beliefs or backgrounds. Concerns about health and education, national prosperity, a strong public infrastructure and good public services are common to us all and these concerns have led to many positive outcomes such as the protection of halal and shechita laws for Islamic and Jewish dietary requirements. In many instances, cooperation has led to the achievement of common goals.

In the midst of growing atheism and hard-line secularism, all faith groups, especially the Abrahamic ones, should work more closely together.

The values of community life and the need to build strong communities of mutual support are basic principles that connect fellow citizens. From our diverse backgrounds and beliefs we can make a common cause to achieve a better society

for everyone. We seek to give voice to the whole range of principles, ideas and concerns that we will contribute to the relevant debate, not merely for our own interests, but for the common good and our shared future.

That said, increasingly cynical attempts are being made to divide us – picking up one faith group at a time. The current political crisis in the Middle East that has given rise to terrorist groups that are alluring some of our youth, even in Europe, is worrying.

Collectively, we need to show the strength of will and courage needed to overcome hurdles of differences and get to know one another; to stand in support of one another when our religious beliefs are attacked or our practices threatened. We believe in unity in our diversity, for diversity in humanity is strength from God, not a weakness. Contrary to assertions that religions have been used to foster hatred and sow discord, the essential message of major faiths is harmony and cooperation. Rather than regarding diversity as a source of inevitable tensions, the Qur’an states that human variety is indispensable when defining common beliefs, values and traditions in human life:

“O human kind, We have created you male and female, and appointed you races and tribes, so that you may know one another. Surely, the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All-knowing, All-aware.” (Quran 49:14)

Imagine a multi-coloured flower garden and compare it to a monochromatic garden, which will people prefer? Human diversity is the beauty and necessity in our life. By diversity however we certainly do not mean isolation, segregation or insularity for that surely defeats the whole purpose of diversity.

We live in a community of communities. We definitely have had some bumps along the way, but, up until 9/11, we were all happy to praise the virtues of diversity. Sadly, many are holding the knife and attempting to give it the decisive blow.

We are witnessing an enforcement of a model from some parts of Europe where the individual must be utterly subservient to the State, where differences must be stamped out at all costs, where liberty is secondary to the priorities of the State. We cannot go back to the world of past mistakes that brought misery and bloodshed.

Unfortunately, the current, often black and white, debate now narrowly focuses on Muslims and young Muslims in particular, and their alleged inability to integrate with the rest of society across Europe. This is not helping anyone.

Young people cannot be dealt with a top-down diktat: whether that is from Government, mosques, churches, synagogues or the community leadership. All have a role, but if we pander to the headlines that pressurises our young, we can expect a backlash and unsatisfactory results.

Young people have a future ahead of them, with their energy and innovative qualities, but they are also impressionable and inexperienced. In life they will pick and mix. They will also be able to advance in areas which we’ve only just began to explore. Following tragic events, such as 7/7 in London, we have stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with one another, looking to our collective security to forge a better future together.

I am a firm believer that religious teachings can bring about a solution rather than a problem. Strife is not a uniquely religious monopoly. People fought over ethnicity and ideology with horrible consequences in the last century. This may seem like rhetoric in the current climate of Islam-bashing – but I firmly believe that our religion, Islam, if properly understood and projected, can be a source of immense good as it was in the past.

For example, it is incumbent on Muslims to care for our neighbours, irrespective of faith. Yet how many Muslims actually uphold this value? Take, for example, the principles of Islamic jurisprudence; they are derived from, amongst others, the necessity of public interest. The inter-faith activities that the Muslim Council of Britain engages in have done some invaluable work to dispel tensions among communities.

As citizens of individual European countries, Muslims not only have rights, but also unilateral obligations. We do not claim any special rights. All we expect is fairness and equality. Let there be no doubt in our minds that we have the obligation to participate. We have the obligation to contribute. We have the obligations of good-neighbourliness, of being concerned for others, to share their joys and feel their pains, to provide support and help wherever we can. This is what our faith requires of us. This is our unilateral responsibility. We have a religious obligation to encourage all that is good and discourage all that is harmful.

By holding out our own example of multi-faith and multi-cultural co-existence and co-operation, we must do what we can to instill a sense of hope and optimism for our future. In Britain, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and others regularly participate in multi-faith forums and events both at national and local level. This advances understanding and goodwill. The work we do together helps promote the practical well-being of all our communities. And of course, across towns and cities across the country we live as neighbours, our children attend the same schools and we work in the same organisations. The lesson of all this must be that there is a better way to resolving our differences: whether we live in Britain or elsewhere. This message needs to be reinforced at a grassroots level through our mosques, churches, synagogues, temples and gurdwaras. Our religious leaders have a crucial role to play here.

The only war that needs be waged is a war against our common enemies – ignorance and fears that give rise to racism, discrimination and violent extremism. We need to collectively fight them in Britain and across Europe.

Given the anarchy in some parts of the world, sadly in the Muslim world in recent years, and an increasing commercialisation of life, the world needs a spiritual message of unity and hope that enables societies to heal inequality and social division, as well as protect religion from the perversion of dogmatism and fanaticism. Faith communities have a duty to foster a culture of peace and build a partnership aiming to promote equality of opportunity for all in society. Faith-based people have a bigger responsibility in this, as we believe in accountability to a greater power. We need a moral anchor to navigate through the complexities and challenges of the modern age. We need a spiritual regeneration in a world much centred on individual fulfilment, material wealth and short-term gain.

Lets us strive towards a society where our differences are seen as a divine wisdom, worthy of respect; we all have an equal opportunity to excel and we can confidently contribute to the world that belongs to all of us. This is a test of our role as stewards of this planet.

I thank you for giving me the opportunity to address you.

Peace Be Upon You.


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