Muslims in the West and the Search for Abu Talib

What do these figures that are mentioned in the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (s) have in common – Abu Talib, Mut‘im bin Adiy, Ashama bin Abjar (the Negus of Abyssinia), Waraqah bin Naufal? They are all people that did not accept the faith of Islam (although there is some dispute about the Negus) yet were crucial in supporting the early Muslim community.

While there are many commentaries and studies of the Sira (the life of the Prophet) this is an often under-explored aspect that is highly relevant to us today, especially those Muslims living as minorities.

The care and compassion shown by Abu Talib, the uncle of the Prophet, is well known to many. His protection was vital given the tribal nature of Makkan life. When the small band of followers in Makka faced severe treatment at the hands of the Quraysh, it was to the Christian Negus of Abbysinia that the Prophet sent those who were able to leave. During the time of famine in Makka, when the Muslims were subject to a social and economic boycot, it was non-believers like Mut‘im bin Adiy who would secretly smuggle food to Muslims. It was the same Mut‘im who granted the Prophet protection after the death of Abu Talib. When the Prophet was secretly leaving Makka during the Hijra it was a non-Muslim guide, Abdullah bin Uraiqit, that he confided in revealing his plans and asked him to show the route to Medina. Waraqa bin Naufal, a Christian priest, was the cousin of Khadija, wife of the Prophet. He was the one that helped the bewildered couple make sense of the first revelation to Muhammad.

The fact that the Qur’an addresses humanity as ‘the children of Adam’ is very significant. It reminds of the common ancestry of all humanity, creating the atmosphere of a single family of people rather than one of different races or religions who should fight against each other. Differences are of course there, but in the sight of God they are natural and part of His plan: “If your Lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people…” (Qur’an, 11:118). “O mankind! We created you from single (pair) of male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other, (not despise each other)…” (Qur’an, 49:13). Furthermore, the Islamic idea of pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance or acceptance of difference, it is based on honour and dignity, “we have honoured the children of Adam” (Qur’an, 17:70).

Sadly, this more open and pluralistic outlook of Islam has been forgotten by many. In the heat of conflict we have become obsessed with identity politics, thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Wind the clock forward 14 centuries, and think in the context of a multi-faith environment like Britain; now more than ever before, the question of how we live with each other, with our differences and our diversity is vital. It is important that we pay serious attention to how we can work together with people and not just on our own as a Muslim ‘community’.

‘Muslims’ / ‘non-Muslims’ – our lives are intertwined in very complex ways. The examples from the time of the Prophet show that they always have been. Think of how much we rely on each other as citizens, neighbours, friends and co-workers. Whether for something as low level as asking a neighbour to keep an eye on our home, sharing the school run, or raising money for a local cause. Working on something more organised like getting planning permission for a mosque or something at the national level, like winning the support of others to argue for a piece of legislation that protects everyone’s rights. Or something like relying on open and fair minded people (as we have done so often) to defend the rights of Muslim citizens when they are wrongly attacked. So, one could ask the question – who are the contemporary figures such as Abu Talib for Muslims today? Have we reached out to make such friends?

I’m struck by how much more powerful it is when someone that is not a Muslim speaks out against Islamophobia, for example. And likewise, when a Muslim stands up against another form of prejudice such as anti-Semitism or homophobia.

But in order to reach that level of co-operation, we need to move beyond the parochial. To open ourselves up to relationships that go beyond self-interest and where we can be sensitive to the needs of a much wider circle of people. Where we are able to see the value of working for the whole. All the people that are our neighbours and fellow citizens; our people. We truly are in it together.

(This blog appeared in emel magazine, issue 99, December 2012)

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