Let us, for a moment, go back and listen in on an ancient and sacred conversation: “Behold, I am about to establish on earth one who shall inherit it,” said the Lord God to the angels. They replied: “Will You place upon it such as will spread corruption thereon and shed blood – whereas we extol Your limitless glory, praise You, and hallow Your Name?” Alas, it seems that our reputation as human beings preceded our own creation. The Almighty replied: “Verily, I know that which you do not.” In other words, the Lord God said, “I know what I am doing.”
That conversation is recounted in the verse 2:30 of the Qur’an, and it highlights the purpose of the creation of humankind: to be the inheritors of the earth, God’s vicegerents, His representatives. As such, we have a tremendous responsibility placed upon us by the Lord God.
As Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Professor of Islamic law at UCLA, writes:
“The Qur’an describes the moment of creation as the moment in which humanity was entrusted with a heavy responsibility… God made human beings God’s agents or viceroys on the earth and entrusted them with the responsibility to civilize the land.”
Yet, what does “civilizing the land” mean exactly? Dr. Abou El Fadl continues:
Civilizing the earth does not mean constructing buildings or paving roads. It means striving to spread on the earth the Divine attributes such as justice, mercy, compassion, goodness, and beauty. In doing so, human beings spread Divinity itself upon the earth. In contrast, corrupting the earth – spreading violence, hatred, vengeance, and ugliness – means failure in discharging one’s obligations toward God. The Qur’an teaches that the act of destroying or spreading ruin on this earth is one of the gravest sins possible – fasad fi al-ard – which means to corrupt the earth by destroying the beauty of creation, is considered an ultimate act of blasphemy against God.
Indeed, the Qur’an speaks harshly of those who spread corruption on the earth:
“…none does He cause thereby to go astray save the iniquitous, who break their bond with God after it has been established [in their nature] and cut asunder what God has bidden to be joined, and spread corruption on earth: these it is that shall be the losers.” [Qur’an 2:26-27]
Elsewhere, God says:
“Now there is a kind of man whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument. But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying [man’s] tilth and progeny: and God does not love corruption.” [Qur’an 2:204-205]
Thus, our job as human beings is to civilize the earth: to spread justice, mercy, compassion, love, and beauty over all of the earth and its creatures. And this responsibility falls upon all human beings. Herein lies a problem: what of people of other faiths? How do we deal with those who are not Muslim? Are we – as many are wont to believe – hopelessly locked in a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam? Are we doomed never to work together?
Quite the opposite. In fact, Dr. Samuel Huntington, the originator of the much-touted “clash of civilizations” theory, recently decried the misuse of his theory by politicians and pundits. In an interview with Islamica Magazine, Dr. Huntington said: “I think it is a mistake, let me just repeat, to think in terms of two homogeneous sides starkly confronting each other. Global politics remains extremely complex and countries have different interests, which will also lead them to make what might seem as rather bizarre friends and allies.” When asked whether his thesis has been used by people for their own agendas, he replied: “Oh absolutely, all the time. There isn’t much I can do about that.”
Indeed, the Qur’an anticipates the fact that there will be a plurality of religious communities on the earth, a fact which does not threaten it. Numerous verses speak about this:
“Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you …” [Qur’an 5:48]
“Have, then, they who have attained to faith not yet come to know that, had God so willed, He would indeed have guided all mankind aright?” [Qur’an 13:31]
“And [because He is your Creator], it rests with God alone to show you the right path: yet there is [many a one] who swerves from it. However, had He so willed, He would have guided you all aright.” [Qur’an 16:9]
“For had God so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community; however, He lets go astray that wills [to go astray], and guides aright him that wills [to be guided]; and you will surely be called to account for all that you ever did!” [Qur’an 16:93]
“If it had been your Lord’s will, they all would have believed – all who are on earth. Will you, then, compel the people, against their will, to believe?” [Qur’an 10:99]
“And had thy Sustainer so willed, He could surely have made all humanity one single community: but [he willed it otherwise, and so] they continue to hold divergent views.” [Qur’an 11:118]
Given this knowledge, what are Muslims to do? What are the implications of this fact? How are Muslims and non-Muslim supposed to interact? They are supposed to “know one another”:
“O people! Behold, we have created you from a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes to that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” [Qur’an 49:13]
Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl elucidates what it really means to “know one another”:
“God’s appeal to human beings to engage in ta’aruf, or knowing the other, is not a call for a heartless process of collecting data about other human beings. It is, however, Divine guidance and an exhortation to believers to realize that essential to knowing and loving God is to know and love God’s viceroys on earth.”
Once we “know one another,” we can then work together in the spread of Godliness – justice, mercy, compassion, love, and beauty – on this earth for all to enjoy. The Qur’an makes this exact demand of people:
“For, every community, faces a direction of its own, of which He is the focal point. Vie with one another in doing good works. Wherever you may be, God will gather you all unto Himself: for, verily, God has the power to do anything.” [Qur’an 2:148]
“Unto every one of you We have appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie], then, with one another in doing good works. Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” [Qur’an 5:48]
The Arabic word used in the verses, fastabiqu, literally means “to race.” Thus, we – Muslims and non-Muslims – should race, or alternatively, compete with one another – not in gaining converts from each other’s communities – but in doing good on this earth. The best of us are those who are most conscious of God, and that is only for God to judge.
As a result, people of faith should work together to end poverty and hunger. People of faith should work together to fight for justice for all, not for the few. People of faith should work to protect God’ creation, not only other human beings, but the environment as well. People of faith should strive to prevent the loss of any innocent life, whether it be in Tel Aviv, Gaza, or in any of America’s cities and towns. Whenever something good can be done for this earth, people of faith should always be found in the vanguard.
This is only natural for people of faith, because it stems from their belief in, and more importantly, their love of God. And they love God because God loved them first. It is a very common perception among many non-Muslims that Islam does not have love of God as central to its theology. Many people, including some Muslims themselves, think that the God of Islam – who is the God of Abraham, Moses, and Jesus – is a distant, cold, and aloof God, who is not loving at all.
This could not be farther from the truth. In fact, the very basis of the relationship between God and humanity, in my reading of the Qur’an, is one of profound love. God loved us before we were. How do I know this? Because He gave us life when we were dead. What better act of love can there be besides this? And out of His love stems His tremendous mercy and compassion. It is no accident that every chapter in the Qur’an save one begins with the phrase: “In the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.” One of God’s 99 names in the Islamic tradition is Al Wadud, or “The Loving.”
Thus, since God loves us, we love Him back, and as a direct consequence of this love for God, we have love and compassion for all His creation. This love and compassion for God’s creation, the most important of which is fellow human beings, leads us to work to eliminate poverty, hunger, injustice, and oppression. And in our struggle to do this work, we seek others who know and love God to help us: other people of faith. They are natural allies.
I must say that I do not imply that those without faith can not, therefore, also love God’s creation, or have no role in the spread of Godliness on earth. Far from it. They are human beings as well, and they are welcome partners in the spread of good on earth. Furthermore, because I speak as someone who believes in God and feels tremendously privileged to be in communion with his Creator, this does not mean that I disparage those who do not have faith or who do not believe in God. Once again, far from it.
Nevertheless, as a person of faith, I am commanded by God in the Qur’an to seek out other people of faith – regardless of what that faith is – and work with them to do good on earth. That is the reason we were created. That is our responsibility as human beings, as viceroys of God on earth. That is our role in the 21st Century, and it is a major struggle: a true jihad in its very essence. But it is a jihad which no one should ever fear.
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. This article was first published in Illume Magazine, a California-based publication about Islam. This article is based Hesham’s keynote address at the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta’s Annual Building Bridges Award Dinner, delivered on October 28, 2006.