‘If you want to see
what someone values, see what they measure.’
Mikel Harry, Motorola, 6
Many years ago, in the 1970’s I remember seeing a Russian tractor. India used to have a bilateral trade agreement with the USSR by which we bought all kinds of goods from Russia and paid for them in Indian Rupees, whereby we were able to conserve our meagre foreign exchange. You can read more about that agreement here http://www.commonlii.org/in/other/treaties/INTSer/1953/16.html
Russia bought tea from us; huge quantities of rather poor-quality teas and supplied us with manufactured goods. This tractor was one such, representing perhaps ten years supply of the morning cuppa to a Russian farmer. What amazed me was its size. It was massive. Not merely big or huge, but massive. Later someone told me that these tractors were failures and people went back to buying the smaller and lighter, Massey-Ferguson tractors, even though they came from a place which was ideologically inferior to the Great Socialist Republic.
knew the answer but asked him why Massey-Ferguson tractors were considered
superior and why the Russian tractor had failed. And sure enough he said, ‘We
use tractors to plough in rice fields. A heavy tractor sinks into the soil and
even if it has the power to get out, it churns up the soil so much that it
spoils everything. Sometimes it gets stuck so badly that we have to yoke
bullocks to it to haul it out. Why buy a tractor if you still need bullocks?’
did some research into why Russian tractors were so heavy. Massive blocks of
steel. The answer I got was that Russian factories measured output by the
amount of steel consumed. If you were a factory manager and had to show high production
figures, you had to show that you were consuming a high tonnage of steel. There
are two ways to do that. Make lots of lighter tractors or fewer but much
heavier ones. Which is easier? You guessed it. And there you have, massive
tractors, that make the Production Reports look good. How do they work in the
field? Depends on the field. Maybe they worked fine in the Russian steppe,
ploughing to grow wheat or corn. But in India, in rice fields they failed. To
this day in some villages you can see a massive steel tractor gently rusting,
testimony to an age of mindless industrialization where progress was measured
You get what you
measure… so let us ask, “How do we measure human worth?”
we live in a world where dignity has quite wrongfully been linked to material
wealth. No matter how learned a man or woman may be, or how kind or truthful or
trustworthy, if they are not wealthy, they are treated with disdain. Net worth
has only one meaning. And I can’t think of a more dishonorable meaning; to
equate a person to the amount of money in his pocket. HNI; what if it meant
Person with the best character? Instead of Person with the most money, no
matter how he earned it and no matter what his character is like. Not to say
that all rich people are evil. They aren’t. I am talking about what we measure
which shows what we truly value. If we measured character, truthfulness,
kindness, compassion, courage, dignity, concern for the underprivileged, the
weak, elderly, poor, sick; then that is how we would define ourselves. High
Networth Individual would mean the kindest, most truthful, most compassionate,
most courageous person in that society. We wouldn’t glorify ostentation, waste,
self-centered consumption, cruelty, oppression. We would call Aristotle, ‘The
Great’, instead of Alexander, whose only claim to fame was that he left
Macedonia to rape, plunder and loot his way across a million square miles of
others’ homes and societies. Who we glorify and celebrate, tells a much bigger
story about who we are than about who they were.
what would the implications of living in such a society be on people’s
happiness and self-worth; real self-worth, not pretentions to it. I believe
this is something to think about.
we applied today’s standard of HNI – High Networth Individual, how would people
like Hillel and Shammai, Al Ghazali, Al Biruni, Ibn Sinna, Abu Hanifa, Ahmad
bin Hanbal, Jalauddin Rumi and so many sages and scholars of so many
traditions, look? How would you judge the Networth of Aristotle, Epictetus,
Plato, or even the prophets like Moses, Abraham, and perhaps most of all Jesus (Peace
be on them all) – about whom Muhammad (Peace be on him) said, “The sky was
his roof and the earth his bed.” Today he would probably be in a homeless
shelter after having been arrested from a park bench or pavement and taken
there by the police.
if we applied an ethical and moral standard to decide who was an HNI and who
wasn’t, how would Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, the various Middle
Eastern Potentates, and the many billionaires in different countries, look?
Especially if you consider the fact that the poorest countries in the world
today seem to have the highest number of billionaires. Many of them living in
high-rise palaces with their feet grounded in the misery and squalor of the
daily lives of the poor. Not ashamed, not troubled, not even giving it a second
thought as they go about trying to outdo each other in vulgar display of
wealth; not by competing in charity but in wastage and excess.
Rabbi Elazar said: The reward for charity is paid from Heaven only in accordance with the kindness and generosity included therein and in accordance with the effort and the consideration that went into the giving. It is not merely in accordance with the sum of money, as it is stated: “Sow to yourselves according to charity and reap according to kindness.
is very particular about preserving the dignity of the receiver so that he
doesn’t feel demeaned because he needs to accept charity. Islam says that the
one who receives, honors the one who gives because by giving the giver is
receiving reward from Allahﷻ
whereas the one receiving is only getting something material from another human
being. So, the giver gives and thanks the receiver for accepting it.
you want to know what someone values, see what they measure.’
is a wonderful story about the Regent of the Moghal Emperor Akbar, who came to
the throne at the age of ten and had a Regent who ruled in his name until he
came of age and who was his mentor, teaching him how to be King. His name was
Abdur Raheem and his title was Khan-e-Khanaan (The Khan of Khans – Chief of
Chiefs). He was a very learned man, a polymath, a scholar of Islam and known
for his great wisdom and sagacity.
day Abdur Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan was traveling from Delhi, the capital, to Agra.
Needless to say, he was preceded by his massive entourage and surrounded by his
escorting troops and personal bodyguard. On the way he saw a man standing at
the edge of the road with a glass bottle in his hand in which were a few drops
of water. The man would tilt the bottle until the few drops of water were at
the lip of the bottle, in danger of falling out, and would then straighten the
bottle so that they didn’t fall out. This he kept doing over and over. Abdur
Raheem ordered his carriage to stop and ordered his treasurer to give the man a
bag of gold coins. This was done.
evening, when he was in camp and his Durbar had been set up and he was
receiving petitions, his treasurer asked him, “Your Grace, why did you
give that man a bag of gold coins? Who was that man?”
Raheem Khan-e-Khanaan said, “I am surprised you are asking this question.
Didn’t you see what the man was saying?”
treasurer said, “Your Grace, all I saw was that the man was tilting the
bottle until the water in it almost flowed out, but he would save it at the
last moment and didn’t allow it to fall out. But what does that mean?”
Raheem said, “It means that the man was saying, “I have lost
everything except two drops of honor. And now even that is about to go.”
If he had come and begged me for charity, it would be at the expense of his
honor. So, I ordered you to give him the gold so that his honor is preserved,
and nobody knows that he received charity.
as we speak there is a raging debate about the abrogation of Article 370 in
Kashmir. On one side are those who claim that this is good for the people of
Kashmir who will now be able to sell their land and become wealthy. They say
that this will bring in much needed new business and tourism and thereby jobs
and boost the economy. Even those who normally walk the high talk of ethics and
morals supported the bill in Parliament on the plea that it was ‘good for the
people of Kashmir’. On the other side are those arguing that you can’t take
unilateral action without consulting the people, on the plea that it is good
for them? Why were the people themselves, whose welfare seems to be everyone’s
concern, not taken into confidence before taking the action of abrogating a
Sovereign Guarantee enshrined in nothing less than the Indian Constitution?
What is a Sovereign Guarantee? It is a guarantee given by the Nation. Not by the government in power at the time. But by the Nation, to fulfill whatever it was that was guaranteed. No matter if the government that gave the guarantee changes. The guarantee would still be valid and sacrosanct. Especially where it is enshrined in the Constitution, it is inviolate and inviolable. However, it looks like today we seem to have changed the meaning of Sovereign Guarantee. Does this mean that a Sovereign Guarantee can never be changed? No, it doesn’t. It means that it can’t be changed unilaterally. If the two parties in the guarantee mutually agree to change it, then it can be changed honorably. But both parties must be involved in the re-negotiation and must come to a new agreement. For one party to unilaterally change a Sovereign Guarantee is not honorable. Do we even know what honorable means today? After all, today our highest criterion for decision making seems to be political expediency.
am not against economic development. I am against giving it precedence over
honor, truthfulness and integrity. After all, if we do that, then what’s wrong
with drug dealing, stealing, bribing, human trafficking and a plethora of ways
to make money? It is only truthfulness, the sense of right and wrong, virtue
and sin that is the demarcating line between what is honorable and what is not.
Al Capone was an entrepreneur, wasn’t he? So is Bill Gates. Is there a
difference? Who would you like to be? If I break my word once, then what value
does my promise have in the future? It takes a lifetime to build trust but to
destroy it, all it takes is one instant. Take an expensive crystal vase and
drop it on a stone floor. As it shatters into a thousand pieces, you will
perhaps understand what I mean by keeping and breaking promises. Can it be put
back if you are able to collect all the pieces? Perhaps it can. But it will
never be the same. You will always be able to see the fault lines. Another
simple way to understand this is to ask yourself this question, “Who would I
rather deal with? A person who keeps his word or one who is liable to betray it
if it suits him?” A Sovereign Guarantee is not about the matter that you are
guaranteeing. It is about us as a Nation. It tells the world who we are. Or
more accurately about how we choose to define ourselves. The world merely
Mikel Harry said, ‘If you want to see what people value, see what they
measure.’ Let us ask ourselves, what do we measure? Not just pay lip service
to. But measure because we value it.
It was 1980. I was working in Guyana, in a small mining town on the River Berbice, called Kwakwani. I had saved up money to take my first holiday and planned to go to London. As I was going to pass through the United States, I thought it would be a good idea if I could stop by and visit some friends and see New York. But there was one problem. I applied for a visitor’s visa to the US but was refused. The Immigration Officer thought that as I was young, single, and unattached, I would stay on in the US illegally. So, sadly, I only transited in New York and went on to London. In 1982, when I decided to return to India though I would need to transit through New York and was dying to see the city, I did not even plan to apply for a visitor’s visa as I was sure I would be refused again for the same reason.
However, one weekend a few months before I was due
to leave, I went to visit my good friend Rev. Thurston Riehl who was the Vicar
of Christchurch Vicarage, the Anglican Church in Georgetown. He lived in a
lovely wooden bungalow in the Church compound with his wife Clarissa Riehl, who
was the Public Prosecutor in the High Court. Father Riehl told me that he had
invited a few people over that evening and one of them was the Deputy Consul
General of the United States, a man named Dennis Goodman. Father Riehl said
that he would recommend my case to Goodman to see if it would help. I agreed.
That evening when the introductions had been done, Father Riehl said, “Yawar is
going back to India and wants to see New York. He had applied for a visa in
1980 but was refused. Do you think there is a chance that he can get a visa
Goodman turned to me and asked, “What is the guarantee that you will not stay on illegally if we give you a visa. Please don’t be offended. This is a very common thing and something that the visa officer will need to be convinced about.”
“I give you my word that I will not stay on
illegally. More than that, I can’t do.” I said. Dennis Goodman simply looked at
me in silence and then said, “Please come and see me the next time you are in
So promptly the following week I went to the US
Consulate to see Mr. Goodman. Those were the days before the security
nightmares that you have to face today, and I was conducted straight away to
his office. He gave me an application form, and after I had filled it in, he
accompanied me to the Visa Section next door. There he asked me to wait at the
window and went behind the counter. The window had a glass panel and a mike
into which you had to speak.
As Dennis Goodman walked into the office, the lady
at the counter turned to talk to him and forgot to switch off her mike. So, I
was unwittingly privy to their conversation.
Goodman: “Can you please give him a visitor’s
visa? He is going back home and wants to see New York.”
“Hi Dennis, give me a second.” The lady checked
her records and said, “Did he tell you that his brother is already there? This
guy is not leaving once he lands in New York, believe me.”
Goodman: “He gave me his word that he will leave.”
“His word?? What on earth is that?? Don’t tell me
you believe him!!”
Goodman: “As a matter of fact, I do. So please
give him the visa. I will guarantee that he will not stay illegally.”
“Okay Sir, it’s your neck!!”
Then she turned back to the window where I was and
said to me, “Please come in the evening and collect your passport.” I thanked
her and left. Neither of them was aware that I’d heard their entire
I landed in America, stars in my eyes. I was given
a stay permit for three weeks. I was however not prepared for the reception
that I got. After the initial welcome, all my friends got after me to find a
job. I tried to tell them that I had not come to stay and that I was only
visiting on my way back to India. The conversations all went something like
“I have a friend who runs a restaurant and is
looking for help. You can start waiting at tables and then see where it takes
you. Nothing to worry. We all start the same way in this country but see where
we are today. Here they pay you by the hour. No way you can get that in India.”
“I haven’t come to stay. I am going back home. I
got my visa on the promise that I wouldn’t stay in America illegally. So, I am
not going to.”
Looks of incredulity. Where is this guy from? I
mean which planet? Promise? What is he talking about anyway? Let me ask.
“I promised the Consul General in Guyana that I
wouldn’t overstay my visa and wouldn’t remain in the US illegally.”
“Yeah! Tell me about it! We all did that. So, what
happened? Everyone knows, we are not doing anything illegal. We are just
hustling for a living. So, can you. Who cares?”
“Staying without a visa is illegal. Who cares? I
“You are just plain lazy. You don’t want to work
hard. Do you have a job in India? What will you do there? You will starve. Look
at so-and-so, see how he made a success. Started pumping gas. Now he owns the
gas station. So can you if you only work hard.”
“In India I will have to work harder. It is not
about hard work. It is about keeping my word. I promised Dennis Goodman that I
would not stay back. (I tell the whole story again). He told the consular
officer to give me a visa on his guarantee. How can I go back on my word?”
“Dennis Goodman is not watching you. He doesn’t
“Yes, you are right. He is not watching me. Dennis
Goodman doesn’t know. But I do.”
End of conversation. Nobody is convinced. Nobody
shows me any respect for standing by my principles. But it doesn’t matter to
me, because I couldn’t have done anything else. I don’t budge, because my word
is my bond. And I gave my word.
When I reached England, enroute to India, the first thing I did was to buy a postcard of Big Ben, stuck some nice British stamps on it and mailed it to Goodman saying, “This is proof that I have left the US as I had promised.” I never heard from him and don’t even know if he got the card. Postal services to Guyana were rather shaky at the time, but if he is still around and reads this, I want him to know that I remember his kindness and appreciated his belief in me. And I want him to know that I kept my word and did what I’d said I would. Maybe he can show this to the lady who’d said to him, “It’s your neck.” His neck was safe.
The world is round and what goes around, comes around. Today almost forty years later, I have been lecturing American diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and have lived and worked in America and traveled there many times. Every time I do, I think of Dennis. Very interestingly also, a dear friend, who heard this story, found Dennis on the net. I am hoping it is him and that I will be able to contact him, so that the story can have a proper end. Shows how the world is both a small and a big place.
They called it freedom. And freedom is a good word, so we thought nothing of it. Freedom to do whatever they want, to be themselves, to express themselves, to have space; they called it. It sounded like a good thing. After all, don’t we all believe that the fight for freedom is the good fight and don’t we support all those who are fighting to gain freedom?
We should have asked, ‘Freedom from what? To do what? What does ‘express yourself’ mean? What is the meaning of ‘space?’
Then we would have learnt that freedom meant, freedom from all restraint, all rules of decency, all that holds the fabric of moral, socially responsible society together. But then, isn’t that what we used to call anarchy?
“Yes, it is”, they said. But then you see, those are the quaint and frankly embarrassingly idiotic and backward, middle class values that we used to live by. High time we jettisoned them and joined the mainstream of modern society in the global village.
They forgot to tell us that in the global village the dominant culture is the culture of consumerism. The culture of consumption. The culture of self-indulgence with the only limit being the spending power of your credit card. They forgot to tell us that in the process of creating this society it was necessary to create a high degree of irresponsibility, a sense that only ‘I’ matter and the rest can go to hell. ‘Each man for himself and the Devil take the last.’ ‘Family’ in this society is a 6 – letter word; a bad word because families epitomize responsibility. And responsibility is another 14 – letter bad word. Responsible people save. They don’t spend. They conserve. They re-cycle. They don’t waste. They become sedate. They don’t follow fads and trends. Responsible people don’t support consumerism. They are bad news.
So, the family must be destroyed.
To do that promiscuity and immorality must first be encouraged. But you can’t call it that, can you? That will draw too much flak. So, they invented another phrase – adult consent.
Now being adult is all about taking decisions about your own life without anyone else having the right to ‘interfere’, right? If two adults want to do something who is anyone else, be it society, be it the law or be it religion, to dictate what they can and can’t do? That is the opposite of freedom, right? And the opposite of freedom is oppression, right? And oppression is a bad thing, right?
So adult consent came into being. And we supported it.
Now to take the ‘fight for freedom’ to its next stage and that is, to define who is an adult. Age of consent. 21 years? Too old. People mature long before that. So, 18? Why not 16? 16 is the ideal age of consent because a person is mature at 16, so why should they be prevented from exercising their right to freedom any longer? That sounds much better.
How do you make promiscuity acceptable in a society that insists on decency and morality? Well the best way is through advertisements, serials and movies. Bollywood, Hollywood and all the commercial product and service advertisements do a cardinal job of chipping away at the bastions of social morals until what was unmentionable a decade ago becomes fashionable in this decade. We call it entertainment. We call it being progressive. We call it being chic and those who don’t subscribe are the squares. That’s the thin edge of the wedge. Once it gets into the doorway, the rest is inevitable and only a matter of time. We thought nothing of a biscuit advertisement that showed a scantily dressed woman lounging languidly on a couch. We thought nothing of an ice cream stick ad which showed a woman holding the stick almost touching parted lips, in a gesture that clearly reminded you of something else. We thought nothing of a pocket PC ad that focused more on the curve of the buttock supporting the pocket than the PC which protruded therefrom. And all the while we comforted ourselves with the thought that after all these were only billboards featuring some women we did not know personally. So, they can’t hurt us, can they?
We did not see or chose not to see the real agenda – social engineering. Changing the standards of society. Changing what is acceptable and what is not. Changing what is considered taboo and what is not. Moving something from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘aspirational’. You did not think it could be done, did you? Well, just look at the way advertising and films have changed over the last 3 decades and you will see how things that our parent’s generation would have had a heart attack seeing, don’t even attract a comment from us.
But why do you need a woman’s naked body to sell ice cream? Isn’t that oppression of women? “No, it isn’t”, we were told. “You see, she is doing it of her own free will. Just like playing tennis in micro-skirts.” But wearing a burqa is oppression. But what if the one wearing the burqa is doing it of her own free will? “Not possible”, you were told. “The burqa is not religion. It is subservience.” Ask Sarkozy. So, it must be banned. But forcing people to take clothes off is as much oppression as forcing them to put them on, isn’t it? Ah!! You will never understand. But it doesn’t matter, because you don’t matter. You are too old fashioned and out of date.
We watched pre-marital and extra-marital relationship scenes in movies in the name of story line and plot and marveled at the acting skill (after all it is all acting and not real, we comforted ourselves) until suddenly one day our children started to have similar relationships.
When we watched the movie, we never thought it would happen in our own home, did we? But then weren’t we accepting the new world order when we paid to watch the movie?
Was it not we, who told our children that pre-marital or extra-marital sex were okay, when we watched the movie together as a family? Was it not we who gave our children the message that our morals had changed and that it was no longer necessary for them to take us as role models but instead to take the actors and actresses as worthy of emulation?
Then came television and the lovely serials, ending each day on a note of suspense that ensured that we watched what happened the next day. Bold & Beautiful, which may have been bold but was certainly not beautiful. Relationships of men and women that eventually got so confused that the woman who was once the wife of the father is now the wife of the brother while simultaneously being the paramour of someone else. What freedom!! And where was all this happening and being watched? In our own living rooms. In homes where women were in purdah, extra-marital relationships were displayed in full detail and watched by the whole family completely without shame. Why? Because of course we believed it couldn’t happen to us and what we were seeing was ‘only acting’.
And for those of us who were among the watchers exclusively of National Geographic, talk shows, news and Animal Planet – well you see, it is the commercials that ensure that you can see these shows and what is in the commercials? Pushing the boundaries of desire, daring, challenging norms and making the impossible, possible. Not one of those words that I have used, will you challenge. Not one of them in themselves is objectionable. But look at a commercial – almost anyone of them and you will see each of these concepts in a totally different light. But we didn’t think about that, did we? Because we don’t think, period. And for those who don’t watch any TV at all there are newspapers, magazines and the ever present, ever more daring billboards.
Then there is hate speech. It is natural to like or dislike people; individuals we meet, have known, work with or live beside. But it is not natural to like or dislike entire nations, ‘people’, groups, communities and ethnicity. When we do that it is called ‘racism’, ‘stereotyping’, ‘discrimination’ and worse. But do it in the name of ‘nationalism’, ‘patriotism’ and ‘ethnic pride’ (though you don’t call it that) is not only acceptable but is ‘good’, ‘virtuous’ and ‘honorable’ while its opposite is, well, what is the opposite of nationalism and patriotism? That is not nice, is it? That is how hate speech suddenly came out of the closet of our hearts. Emotions and ideas which eventually led to the holocaust, suddenly became legitimized and respectable enough to be spoken from public platform. The only difference is that the new ‘Jews on the block’ are Muslims; though Jews are still not off the hook in some countries. But this is not about Jews or Christians or Muslims or Hindus. It is about realizing that the socialization that led to one of the worst crimes in history, is once again raising its ugly head and is being applauded and supported. Hate speech, no matter in what disguise is not acceptable. All hatred is fire and the result is always ash. That is a lesson we should have learned, having paid such a high price for it. But did we?
The thin edge of the wedge that was inserted in the doorway has very effectively worked its way in, and the door is now wide open.
They say that reading biographies is perhaps the best way to learn real life lessons. That is because a biography is a record of practice. Of what worked and what didn’t. The life of Muhammadﷺis perhaps one of the most well documented in human history.
Having said that one may ask why his life and all the detail is important at all? I am not speaking from the perspective of a Muslim for whom to study the life of Muhammadﷺand to live his life in accordance with it, is a religious requirement. I am asking this from the perspective of a neutral reader, Muslim or not, who is looking for biographies to read.
The answer lies in the facts related to his life which are public knowledge. Here was someone who in a period of 23 years, took his people from being the weakest, most despised and oppressed in their community to being the leaders and role models in the same community. And he did all that without lies, cheating, corruption, violence or bloodshed. My question is, ‘Would you like to know how to do that? Would you like to know how to bring about not incremental but transformational change in your society? Then read the life of Muhammadﷺ.’
In the words of J. Krishnamurty, ‘It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.’
I don’t think there is anyone, including the 1% who appear to have it all who will disagree that we are very sick. Humanity is sick. The earth is sick. We are all very sick. This is no longer an academic issue for people to write scholarly papers about. It is something that we, the people of the world, need to address recognizing it as the dire emergency that it is. If we don’t, the clock is ticking backwards for us and fast. And the time is very close where we will make our own position as the inhabitants of this earth; not its owners as we like to believe; completely untenable. We need action. And we need it now.
Call it a strange coincidence but 5thCentury Makkah was a microcosm of our global capitalist, pluralist, multicultural, multiracial society. Let me describe the Makkah that Muhammadﷺwas born, grew up and lived in, until the age of 50. That is a long time for someone to spend in one town but that is what Muhammadﷺdid.
Makkah was a town with one single claim to fame – the Ka’aba. This is the House of Allahﷻbuilt by Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham) and was a place of pilgrimage from times immemorial. Access to the Ka’aba was open to anyone who wanted to come. The environs of the Ka’aba were declared a sanctuary with all killing, hunting and fighting banned within that sanctuary. This was the main reason why Makkah developed as a town, because it was a safe haven for everyone from any of the many frequently warring tribes.
Another similarity that 5th century Makkah had with our modern society is that it was a world of business. Businessmen were its leaders and they ran the town. Acquisition of wealth was the primary concern. Makkan society was materialistic based on a free market economy. Markets were not regulated by any central authority. Traders charged the best price they could get, hoarded in times of scarcity and sold at great profit and bought goods from as far afield as Syria and Yemen to sell in Makkah.Makkah being as sort of aggregator of people from all of Arabia, was a great seller’s market where high prices could be commanded as goods sold in Makkah were simply not available in any other part of Arabia. That is how Makkan traders became its nobility and created a sort of oligarchy. You can draw similarities with our capitalist society today and see how close 5th century Arabia was to most of our 21st century world.
Makkah was also a multicultural and pluralistic place as all centers of trade tend to be. That is because if you want to promote trade you must make it easy and safe for people from multiple origins, belief systems and cultures to coexist peacefully. All that is good for business. And so it was. In Makkah, the local people mostly worshipped idols. But Jews, Christians, Magians all came and went from Makkah, each practicing his religion without any interference from anyone else. Very much like what happens in most Western countries today. And for the same reason; it is good for business.
The reason I’ve spent so much time on drawing a picture of Makkan society of the 5th century showing its similarities to our 21st century society is because I want to hypothesize that because Muhammadﷺ despite being a person with almost no resources, support or political power, could bring about a complete transformation of his society, then we have reason to hope that the methods he used can work today for us as well.
To quote Alphonse de Lamartine, in his book, ‘History of Turkey’ who said, “If greatness of purpose, smallness of means and astonishing results are the three criteria of a human genius, who could dare compare any great man in history with Muhammad?”
Muhammadﷺdidn’t focus on bringing about any materialistic changes in the lives of people. The changes he brought about ideological, ethical and moral, changed not only their lives but also changed the structure, laws, freedom and behavior of Arab society. Muhammadﷺbrought about changes in the way people thought, in their ideals and benchmarks which led to a change in what they considered important, which in turn led to a change in their behavior which brought about a change in society. As they say, it all begins at the top; in the mind. Once we change our attitude, our behavior changes which leads to perceptible results in and around us. All change must begin with us internally, with how we view the world, what we want from it, what we find satisfaction in and what we are prepared to do (and not do) to get it. We need to define the meaning of a ‘good life’, and be clear about what investment we are prepared to make, to get it.
I mention this here because in our race today, to garner all resources for oneself without a thought about others, we have created a society that is crying out in pain and grief. It is inconceivable to imagine that the resources of the world can possibly be concentrated in the hands of so few, but as they say, ‘fact is stranger than fiction’. I can imagine the derision if any author dared to suggest that 62 people would own 50% of global assets and the rest of the world would watch silently. But that is not fiction. That is fact. For perspective, let me state that a bus has 65 seats excluding the driver’s seat.
What was the change that Muhammadﷺ wrought in his society?
In my view, there are three major principles that he promoted:
1.Accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden
3.Spreading goodness all around
This is the essence of the religion he brought, Islam. That is why he said, ‘The best of you is the one who is the most beneficial to all people.’
Let us look at each of these principles in the life of Muhammadﷺbriefly.
1.Accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden
What makes a mistake a crime is that the criminal knows that what he is doing is illegal, immoral and wrong. People don’t commit sins, oppress others, commit violence or evil because they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. They do it because they think they can get away with it. Muhammadﷺ taught that this belief is a fallacy because no matter what we think, speak or do is known and seen by our Creator to whom we will return and to whom we must give an account of what we did.
Muhammadﷺ taught that good and evil are absolute values. They don’t depend on who does them or who these are done to. He taught that human values apply to all humans, not only to Muslims. On the contrary Muslims have an additional responsibility to act according to the values of their religion because they believe in Muhammadﷺ and in Islam.
He said to his daughter Fatima, ‘O! Fatima, don’t think that you will be favored by Allahﷻ because you are the daughter of His Messenger. You will stand before your Creator on the basis of your own deeds.’
Muhammadﷺ was known among his people even before he started preaching Islam as As-Sadiq ul Ameen – The Truthful and Trustworthy. And that is what he taught his followers; to be truthful in every aspect of life. Someone asked him, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may be a coward?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked, ‘Is it possible that a Muslim may commit adultery?’ He replied, ‘Yes.’ They asked him, ‘What is it that a Muslim cannot possibly do?’ He replied, ‘A Muslim cannot tell a lie.’
He taught that virtue and vice are absolute values. They are not relative to your personal worth, religion, race or anything else. Right and wrong don’t depend on who does them. That is why truthfulness is the basis of all goodness. He held himself to this value of truthfulness to such an extent that when he was migrating to Madina from Makkah and his life was threatened, he still had valuables that his enemies had entrusted him with. Before he left, he gave them to his cousin Ali bin Abi Talib and instructed to return them to their owners. What can you say about the truthfulness of someone who was trusted by his own enemies?
3.Spreading goodness all around
Muhammadﷺ said to his people, ‘The best of you is the one who is best to his neighbor.’ He didn’t say, ‘Muslim neighbor’. He said, ‘Neighbor.’ In Islam, there is no distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims in respect of the rights of citizenship.
He said, ‘A Muslim is responsible for the welfare of his neighbors, up to seventy houses on either side of his house.’ Imagine a society that is based on this value of responsibility to one’s neighbors.
On another occasion, someone asked him how he could determine if he was a good man. Muhammadﷺ said to him, ‘If you neighbor says that you are good, then you are good. If your wife says that you are good, then you are good.’
Finally, on the issue of women’s rights which everyone today accuses Islam of denying. Women in Muhammadﷺ’s time were treated as property owned and inherited by men, to be used and abused at will. Women had no rights at all. Many Makkan people buried their newborn daughters to escape the cost of raising a girl child. Sounds familiar in today’s context? Let us see what Muhammadﷺ gave women in the 5th century.
1.Right to own property and income and to keep whatever she earns without sharing anything of it.
2.Right to be paid to bring up her own children including nursing them.
3.Right to marry anyone of their choice.
4.Right to divorce the husband even without his consent and to have this written in the marriage contract.
5.Wife need not serve his parents or family at all.
6.Right to receive the Mehr (bridal gift) and not to pay any dowry at all.
7.Right to retain the Meher if she gets divorced. It remains her property to do with as she likes.
8.Right to inherit from her parents, children and husband.
9.Wife has a right in the husband’s property and income. It is the duty of the husband to support the wife unconditionally. He has no right in her income or property, even if it was purchased with his money.
The reality is that to this day many of these rights are denied to women in so-called advanced countries which don’t operate under Islamic law.
In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that Muhammadﷺ left for us all, Muslim or not alike, a way of life, a code of conduct and behavior that is as applicable today as it was in his time. It is my contention that if people followed his way, then we would be able to cure the sickness of selfishness, cruelty and indifference that we are plagued with and create a society based on compassion, mutual responsibility and accountability to Allahﷻ from whom nothing is hidden.
Now, how’s that for a new world order?
This article was published in the Daily Mirror, Colombo on December 12, 2016.
It merely means, ‘Not in this way.’ Or ‘Not just now.’
That’s what makes frustration fun
‘No’ does not mean ‘Never’. It merely means, ‘Not in this way.’ Or ‘Not just now.’ So invent new ways. That way frustration becomes fun. There are too many incidents in my life where I proved this theory to myself. Too many to narrate here. So just take my word for it and have fun. Until the Wright brothers invented the airplane, people couldn’t fly. Even today people can’t fly, but they have a machine that can and so they fly. Never only means not yet.
Test boundaries: It is a provable fact that many people assume constraints and boundaries and assume that they ‘can’t’ do something. Always ask, ‘How do I know?’ My favorite saying is – ‘Nobody ever knows the best that he can do.’ Our known limit is only the last great thing we did. The next thing we do creates a new record. So always test boundaries. Often the only boundary is in our minds. Remember also that boundary conditions change all the time depending on your own situation, strength, resources, network, power, influence, or knowledge. They also change depending on what is happening in the outside world, so they must be constantly tested and challenged. What was a boundary yesterday may not be a boundary any more.
Have you ever seen a bull elephant in his stable? They tie the biggest of them with a simple coconut coir rope on one leg. As the enormous animal stands there you can see that he can easily rip the rope out of its anchor or simply snap it and free himself if he wishes. But you are amazed that he does not do it. You are amazed that he does not even try. To understand why, you have to go to an elephant training camp.
When the elephant is a little calf, they tie him by the same leg with a similar rope. At that time he does not have the strength to break the rope. He tries very hard and pulls at it with his little trunk and jerks his leg back and forth and uses all his strength to rip out the rope from its anchor – all to no avail. After some days of continuing this struggle, he gives up. That is when he decides that he is incapable of breaking the rope. That is when he becomes a slave, voluntarily. As he grows, this constraint remains firmly fixed in his mind, that the rope is too strong for him. Even after he grows to his potential – weighs four tons, stands twelve feet at the shoulder, can lift a huge teak log with his tusks and trunk as easily as you and I would lift a tea tray, can push over a fully grown Mahua tree to get at the blossoms and tender leaves at the top that he loves so much – take him to his stall and put the rope loop around his leg; he leaves his leg anchored to the ground as if it were tied with reinforced steel chains instead of a coir rope. The steel chains are in his mind and are as powerful as if they were truly there on his leg.
People behave much the same way. We try our hand at something and fail. We take a risk and lose. Then we assume that we can’t succeed. Memory is a double-edged sword; it reminds us of our successes and encourages us or it reminds us of our failures and discourages us. But you know what? We can control the effect it has on us. So what should we do? Well, I look at my failures and take from them what I need to learn. Then I forget them. I don’t sit and brood over them and get depressed. The past is past. It’s only use, and that is important, is to teach us lessons. After that it is a liability.
Interestingly enough, the same applies to our past wins. Brooding over losses depresses you. Dwelling too long over the successes gives a false sense of greatness and glory that has no relation to the present, which may be a far cry from the past. We have too many instances in society of gloating over successes that are centuries old. Even if you built the pyramids, it is no use thinking about them today unless you know how to replicate them and even then, only if you can get someone to pay you to do it.
Reflect on success to replicate it. Reflect on failure to prevent repetition. After those lessons have been learnt, forget both and get on with present life; it is the only thing that counts and can affect our future which awaits us.