Witnessing the utter devastation of the December 2004 Tsunami takes my breath away each and every time. I have continually stressed that the faith-affiliations of the victims is completely immaterial. White, black, yellow, brown; Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Atheist; it makes absolutely no difference. Fellow human beings have suffered tragic deaths, and it is our obligation to help them.
That being said, it has not escaped my mind’s eye that the majority of victims are Muslim. They are my brothers and sisters, as the Quran tells me: “The Believers are but a single brotherhood…” (Quran 49:10). Whenever a Muslim suffers, it is my duty to help them as well. Why? Because the Muslims are one nation, or ummah: “Verily, this nation (lit., ummah) of yours is one nation (lit., ummah) and I am your Lord, therefore serve Me” (Quran 21:92). The Quran stresses this fact again and again: “Verily this nation of yours is one nation, and I am your Lord, therefore fear Me” (Quran 23:52). Also read: “The Believers, men and women, are protectors of one another…” (Quran 9:71).
The sayings of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are full of traditions that detail how the Muslims are supposed to care about one another. In one of these, the Prophet said, “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself” (Bukhari, Muslim). In another saying, the Prophet said: “A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim: he neither oppresses him nor does he fail him…” (Muslim). In fact, the Prophet characterized the ummah as one body, and when one part is injured, the entire body feels the pain.
This fact explains why I was deeply offended by the comments of a RAND Corporation senior analyst. During a day long program sponsored by the New America Foundation and the NYU Law Center entitled, “Al Qaeda 2.0: Transnational Terrorism After 9/11,” he said that one of the problems of today’s Muslims is “Ummah-itis”, a phenomenon of Muslims caring about what is happening to other Muslims around the world. The ending -itis is Greek for “inflammation,” and the connotation of “Ummah-itis” is that this caring for Muslims on the part of other Muslims is an affliction, a disease.
Moreover, I understood his comments to mean that this “Ummah-itis” contributes to transnational “Islamic” terror. Therefore, according to this analyst, my distress here in America at the murder and rape of Muslims in Bosnia; my disquiet for the oppression of Muslims in Palestine; my deep melancholy at the deaths of Muslims in Darfur; all these things are symptoms of a disease called “Ummah-itis”. A complete fallacy. My concern about the suffering of other Muslims is an act of compassion for fellow believers that are denied their human rights. Caring about the welfare of fellow Muslims around the world is not an affliction, but an affirmation of faith and an integral part of the religious requirements of Islam.
This is not to say that Muslims, therefore, are free to care less about the suffering of human beings who are not Muslim. Too many Muslims have taken the verses which speak about the brotherhood of the believers to the extreme and concluded that the suffering of non-Muslims is unimportant. In fact, some even go as far as to say that a hurricane in Florida is “God’s revenge” for the injustices America has committed against Muslims. I have said before – and say again – that this is callous and wrong.
Part of the reason Muslims may have to take up arms in a just war, according to the Qur’an, is to protect churches, synagogues, and mosques from destruction (Quran 22:40). The Quran is unflinching in its demand for Muslims to stand up for justice for all and not just other Muslims: “Believers! Stand out firmly for God, as witnesses to fair dealing, and let not the hatred of others for you make you swerve to wrong and depart from justice. Be just: that is next to piety: and fear God. For God is well-acquainted with all that ye do” (Quran 5:8).
Furthermore, the religiously-mandated concern about the welfare of other Muslims must never become a pretext for committing acts of violence and terrorism. Just because the Muslims of Chechnya have been oppressed by the Russians, this in no wise justifies the wanton murder of innocent schoolchildren, their parents, and their teachers in Beslan. Just because the Muslims of the Occupied Territories have been oppressed by the Israelis, this in no wise justifies the murder of innocent civilians in a pizza parlor or on a commuter bus in Tel Aviv; this in no wise justifies attacks on synagogues and Jewish cemeteries across the globe. Just because innocent Muslim civilians in Iraq have been killed because of the Anglo-American invasion, this in no wise justifies the vicious and brutal beheading of Nicholas Berg and Ken Bigley. This point cannot be under-emphasized.
I truly hope I misunderstood the RAND Corporation analyst when he spoke of “Ummah-itis”. Perhaps he meant “Ummah-itis” to be the phenomenon of which I just spoke: justifying acts of murder and terror against all Westerners because of past and present oppression of Muslims by some Westerners. If this is indeed the case, then I wholeheartedly agree that “Ummah-itis” is a problem that needs to be solved.
If, on the other hand, he meant “Ummah-itis” to be the sincere concern and worry on the part of Muslims about the suffering of other Muslims across the globe, then I vehemently disagree. If my shedding of tears of pain at the sight of Muslims being killed in Darfur is “Ummah-itis”; if my deep concern about homeless survivors of the Tsunami is “Ummah-itis”; then, I don’t want to be cured.
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.