Islamic Origins of Community

by Enes Ergene on . Posted in An Analysis of the Gülen Movement

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I titled this section as such because Western analyses of community are dependent, in many respects upon Western social and historical values. Sociological analyses that are so contingent upon external influences and cultural changes may not somehow encompass the survival of communities in Muslim societies. Even the most astute Western analysts cannot explain about Muslim communities without employing Western concepts.

In both Tönnies and Weber, community indicates social disintegration and/or disengagement. The Muslim world, however, has not experienced such a social disintegration or disengagement in its traditional social structure. Furthermore the factors that form community ties in Muslim societies never resemble tribal or clannish ties. Excessive stress over tribal, clannish, and racial ties is considered in Islam as part of the "tradition of ignorance" (jahiliyya). The prophetic saying expresses that Islam completely excludes all kinds of fanaticism.[1] The obvious reason for this is that such ties obstruct the development of relational networks between Muslims and the broader society. All kinds of ignorance are rejected because they cause excessive stress over sub-identities, blood feuds, and enmity.[2]

Despite the decisive attitude of Islam against these fanatical ties, they have seriously busied Muslim societies after the demise of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Nevertheless, tribal and clannish movements never managed to destroy or discriminate in Muslim societies. At least these identities have never been religiously justified; for the same reason it is not possible to analyze the communion of Muslim societies as a relational form of feudal order or as a form of agricultural society.

The foundations that form the spirit of unity and solidarity in Muslim communities can only be explained by Islamic social and religious practices. Islam encourages charity, common good, establishing human, moral, and social benefit. It advocates production and development while urging competition between groups and communities in organized forms.[3]

Generally speaking, as individuals, humans are reluctant to partake in charity works. Even if they are willing to do charity, they are more inclined to realize this in an organizational and systematical way. Since individuals are occupied with their personal interests and livelihoods, charity works on behalf of society are most of the time ignored. Motivations for charity do not usually come to the surface unless there is necessity or an emergency.[4]

On the other hand each society may indoctrinate common ideals about the future of their society. This activity is executed extensively and systematically, and in each generation, it becomes a new tradition. The tradition refers to individuals' subconscious. However, this subconscious may not produce common consciousness in each period and for each individual at the same level. Social disintegration takes place as long as this conscious deteriorates. Islam, as religion and civilization, addresses the social acts of Muslim societies as well as constructing their subconscious. It constantly renovates the images of goodness in society and in individuals by encouraging goodness, self-sacrifice, and solidarity. Behind civil foundations lies this awareness of goodness in Muslim societies.

Here is the legitimacy and raison d'être of Muslim communities. The phenomenon of Muslim community is an organization of the universal good in the society. Community addresses the good feelings of Muslim individuals; and it brings them to a spirit of contest in charity, goodness, and well-being. Humans tend to be more desirous towards collective encouragement and goodness, solidarity and cooperation.

When done individually, the charity giver often does not see where his goodness materializes within the endless layers of society. Even he cannot estimate the form his goodness might take through needs and relations. In communal activities, however, each contribution immediately materializes. In communal life, goodness, common sense, ideal, sacrifice, and empathy are concrete. For this, it is more convincing and effective. In communities individuals observe more quickly how their sacrifice becomes concrete. Mass psychology and acting as a group have a strong magnetic power over individuals. Although naturally good feelings prevail in human beings, he inclines more to selfish feelings. If there is not a serious encouragement to direct his desire to sacrifice, his inclination to give would be very weak. Community socializes all the selfish feelings. It saves individuals from the maelstrom of selfishness, stinginess, and hedonism. It raises each sense, aptitude, feeling, and idea to the level of virtue and merit. This is the essence of the community in Muslim society.

Defined as such, the ideal Muslim community has a collective personality (şahs-i manevi). In a way, it is a spiritual corporation. It tries to direct even the most corporeal senses to spirituality and eternity. God's consent and pleasure is the principal motive and reason of all sacrifices and altruism. Any concept of worldly reward is deemed to be a low and even undesirable consideration. Be it individual or social, all acts within the community have to be intertwined with God's consent. Any worldly interest, individual or family, would undermine this ideal.

I will touch upon a point here. The social identity of community depends upon spread of goodness and charity. Participation to the community for these works is solely civil and voluntary. We should separate this from the institution of "hisba" which we have seen in Muslim societies throughout Islamic history. Hisba was a bureaucratically established formal institution seeking to serve as an arm of the local municipality. Communities are volunteer establishments that emerge within the society. Force, be it in the form of psychological or material suppression and/or compulsion, is not tolerated within the sphere of community.

In Islamic history, historical and social situations produced volunteer and civil communities. Sub-institutions like charity associations, foundations (waqf), guilds etc. undertake social functions similar to those of communities, and works are fulfilled in the spirit of social worship.

Muslim communities are Islamic social realities that have, in any case, appeared in new formats in modern times. Most of them have reproduced a different social form of religious organization. The emergence of today's communities has more to do with the political disintegration of the Islamic world. In Muslim societies, unlike the West, cooperative spirit is predominant rather than rational spirit. In Islamic history, therefore, Muslim communities were the outcome of subjective political and social conditions and they subsequently cannot be analyzed with Western communal concepts.

The major fault of Orientalists like Montgomery Watt etc., including sociologists, is that they evaluate schools of thought, and communities in Islamic history as oppositions to the Muslim tradition from the outside, opposition that sought to confront general Muslim orthodoxy. Yet the fact is on the contrary; in Islamic history emerging movements, with few marginal exceptions, never thought to exist at the expense of the Qur'an and the Sunna, the main sources of Islamic knowledge. Even the most marginal movements that exclude much of Islam's social tradition feel themselves to be supported by these two sources in some fashion. Movements in Muslim societies sought (and seek) to expand from within, not search for external identities.

Western analyses continually try to observe a clash between classes in Muslim societies, be that clash in the form of tribe, clan, schools of thought, or between communities. For them these elements are the carriers of clash and social dispute. They think that while in the West class conflict stands for a search of political or social identity, in Muslim societies this search realizes itself on the base of groups and communities. This analogy is rather simple and faulty since it has no Muslim social or historical foundation from which to build upon. As stated earlier, even the most extreme movement express itself within the framework of a general Islamic identity. Without accepting and understanding the central place of the Qur'an in Muslim societies, it would not be possible to explain the individual and societal nature of Muslims.

Gülen's perception of community

Gülen perceives the existence of community on the base from which one builds an effort of "service to God and people." Human existence in the world has two main objectives: First, "servanthood" to God; second, "exalting the word of God" (i'la-yi kelimetullah); that is to say, learning about God and teaching others in this respect. These two are the most essential elements that define a Muslim's mission in this world. All his personal, social, and ethical acts are connected to these two fundamental principles. Exalting the word of God as a noble ideal goes beyond the capacity of individual effort; single acts of good-will and sacrifices in this direction are not enough. Conveying this message to the masses requires the existence of an orderly community. The Holy Qur'an describes all believers as being part of a super identity that forms around the consciousness of the "umma." Though the term "umma" expresses Muslim societies in general, it is an abstract concept. Communities, in one sense, partly undertake social functions of the umma because they create a group that exceeds personal wills. From this point of view, the umma has always been a point of emphasis in Muslim societies. Thus says Gülen, "The idea of community is crucial. An idea of community in the sense of rational, logical, and spiritual unity where each individual assigns his personal thoughts and feelings to a noble ideal."[5]

Community is a rational, logical, spiritual, and psychological unity. It is a voluntary choice. Community is also a moral group. It never pressures anybody. It is solely bound to the voluntary and rational choice of individuals: "[i]n fact the real moral society is the one that promises worldly and otherworldly happiness and surrender to a noble ideal with their free will. In a society such this, the unifying faith, the softening love and the eminence of aim would not allow negativities out of egoism so that immorality would grow up in this body..."[6]

Community is the crucible in which individuals melt their ego, personal interests, motives, and worries one by one, and join a collective body. By melting into the crucible of community, all of one's individualistic and hedonistic attitudes become socialized. Egoism is immoral. Each human being has personal aspects peculiar to his or her individual nature; however his or her existence develops as a member of a social setting. His personality and morality form in society: "We cannot talk of morality or immorality for those who live in solitude from the society. For Islam, enduring with misfortunes that originate from living in society is equal to jihad."[7]

In the quote above, Gülen refers to the hadith according to which a person who mixes with people and endures misfortunes that arise from being with them is superior to the one who does not.[8] There is a subtle point here; mixing in the society is sometimes painful. In society thousands of different types of people live together. Some have moral, physical, and/or personality problems. There are some individuals who do not care about anything save fulfilling their own interests and pleasures. For such people, personal choices take precedence over the choices of others. Another's desire is only important to the point that it strengthens and raises one's own desires. Some treat others contemptuously and denigrate them. Some prefer to rule and oppress others. In a society there are endless differences in flavor and style. This creates many problems. When these differences are associated with personal interests, social life becomes unbearable. Despite all of these, the Prophet, peace be upon him, proclaims that the best of humankind is the one who is with others; this is considered "jihad." The basic function of community is to prepare individuals for society and to socialize them and their personal ability, aptitude, and choices. "A life fashioned with faith, love, and sincerity results in such transcendence that this softens and dissolves each individual and his or her personal characteristics in the society; while keeping on as he is, he becomes universal and attains the richness of being an ocean when he was a drop, and of being a sun when he was an atom."[9] Here the important aspect of community comes on the scene; individuals do not give up their personal abilities and characteristics. On the contrary, they stay as themselves and they get rich with the peculiarities developed via the spiritual entity of the community.

Many modern theories allude to the development of a conflict between individual and social identity. This myth of "conflict" is positioned behind the personality and identity problems created by modernity. Eventually, either individual identity or formal social identity is overemphasized. Thus new identity and inequality problems emerge from this gap formed by personal identity and social integrity.

Modern Muslim communities, on the contrary, do not aim to dissolve the personal identities of its members. Quite the opposite, it broadens and enriches them. In a sense, modern Muslim communities socialize personal identities by forming them around a sublime and noble ideal. Sincerity, affection, worship, and obedience mature humans as individuals, and escort them to the doors of a kind of transcendence. Unable to merge with societal ideals a person cannot become a perfect human being (insan al-kamil). Perfect humanity is only realized in society through noble values and ideals.

Gülen constantly stresses the significance of community by its role in facilitating the training of individuals in society with spiritual discipline and consciousness of God:

Serving on this path is the noblest of all services; the mission is only God's content; and the consequence is happiness in the other world. Even if a minor interest of either the person or the community is interfused into this genuine consideration, all eternal links that bequeath life to individuals and to the community will detach. This detachment results in the divergence of the individual from the main track, the community moves into shock and a vicious circle of failure starts; in fact this path presents a high possibility of victory.

As personal desires, ambitions, and worries should not be present in a community, (because all links and works are entirely connected to God the Almighty) so too should the individual cease his focus on short term ideals and dreams. A real community is a group of people who devote themselves to eternity so that, from Bediüzzaman's perspective, they work for God, start for God, speak for God, and meet for God; act for God, and thus their seconds become as long as years and they stamped this temporary worldly presence with the seal of eternity. Yes, all their works are exceptionally hearty, ingenious, and directed toward eternity.

In this manner one can say that not every crowd can be considered a community. When members are opposed to each other, their multitude will dwindle like the multiplication of fractional numbers. However, the companions of the prophets who were endowed with community spirit had been able to realize what was expected from a powerful community despite being small in quantity. All the same, it would not be an exaggeration at all to accept Abu Bakr (the first Caliph) and Umar (the second Caliph) as a community and nation by themselves. The apostles of Jesus can be perceived more powerful than huge armies. In fact throughout history, these types of mature minorities have been more powerful and more productive than great masses.

On the other hand, love of morality is the most important mechanism by which one can discipline spiritual life, and it is the most significant element of social stability and harmony. Virtues like righteousness, truthfulness, conscientiousness, and respecting others are the essence of morality and are fundamental dynamics of spirit.

If we exclude the last centuries, the moral insight we have inherited from our national history –– is so rich and sound that it might lead us to the front of all nations. If we could discipline our near future according to this insight, many national problems would be naturally overcome and we would be able to think soundly, work more efficiently, walk speedier and more harmoniously; we would be more practical and obviously we would fill the century long gap in our life more swiftly.[10]

Footnote[i1] Ajluni, Kashf al-Khafa, 1/127, Tabari, History, 2/146.

[2] "Or is it the law of the (pagan) Ignorance that they seek (to be judged and ruled by)? Who is better than God as law-giver and judge for a people seeking certainty (and authoritative knowledge)?" (Maidah 5:50).

[3] "Help one another in goodness and piety, and do not help one another in sinful, iniquitous acts and hostility" (Maidah 5:2). See also Baqara 2:148.

[4] "...Who impedes the doing of good (preventing himself and others), and who exceeds all bounds (of right and decency), and who is lost in doubts and implants doubts (in others)…" (Qaf 50:25). See also Qalam 68:12, Maun 107:7.

[5] Gülen, Yeşeren Düşünceler, p. 186.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Tirmidhi, Sifat al Qiyama, 55; Ibn Maja, Fitan, 23.

[9] Gülen, Yeşeren Düşünceler, pp. 186–187.

[10] Gülen, Yeşeren Düşünceler, pp. 187–188.