A community will achieve the position its members are prepared to aspire.
Shaykh Ahmed Bermejo
Granada, December 26th, 2015
First of all I would like to express gratitude to those who have been responsible for this conference and for their invaluable work at all levels: in organising, in logistics and particularly in their intellectual effort. Their effort has been towards the acquisition of useful knowledge, a knowledge that will assist us in our lives, a knowledge from which we can obtain what can be implemented in our lives and that will lead us to change or improve what needs to change in our lives.
I will try to deliver my small contribution, hoping that it might be of use to all and trusting in Allah that He makes it easy for me to transmit some useful knowledge, which is the aim and purpose of this conference.
When I started reflecting about how to address the topic of this talk, the first thing that came to my mind was the celebration of the anniversary of this Mosque in 2012. I don’t know if you remember, that was the year of the so-called revolutions in many Arab countries, branded in the media as the “Arab spring”. At that time the word “revolution” was much used, so that when we were making preparations for the events we decided to make the main theme of the gathering precisely that: revolution. We decided, in addition, to choose a striking title that will appeal to the masses, like one of those movies that, when you read or hear the name of the film you say to yourself: “I got to see this, whatever it takes.” We opted for: “Islam: la auténtica revolución”, something that in English sounded even better: “Islam: the Real Revolution”.
That was to be the general heading for the whole event. Then we had planned four talks dealing with: civic education, economy, authority and governance, and, at last, there was one talk assigned to Shaykh Abdalhaqq Bewley, who is with us today, entitled: “Inner Revolution, Outward Revolution.” No need to mention: of the four this last one was the most important talk for all of us.
And so it was that we sent copy of the programme to Shaykh Abdalqadir, scanned via email, in order that he could revise it and give his ‘go ahead’. We were proud and convinced we had hit the nail right on the head with our choice of theme and title, convinced that that was exactly what the moment demanded, saying to ourselves: “this year’s conference is going to be a big success.” A few days later we received an email. In it there was only one attachment, a PDF document, named “GranadaMosque.pdf”.
We opened it and we saw the same document we had sent to Shaykh Abdalqadir but now it had his corrections and notes, or should I say, he had crossed out our whole text. To begin with he crossed out the general title and instead of “Islam: The Real Revolution”, he wrote: “Islam Rediscovered”, which we translated to Spanish as “Redescubrir Islam”.
That was the first blow. Then there were other minor notations and when we arrived to the last talk, “Inner revolution, outward revolution”, that theme title that had made us feel so proud of ourselves. Here we received the straight punch that left us knocked out, down on the canvas. We could see strokes by a strong hand, made with decision; I could almost dare to say with irritation and vehemence, and which effectively struck through all of our text about that talk. At the bottom of the page the Shaykh had written down five words by his own hand: Jama’at, Khidma, Speaking-well, Hospitality, Giving.
With those five words the Shaykh had given us the keys to the teaching we needed for that, which we were calling the “inner revolution”, one that will have resulting consequences in the outward. It was as if he was telling us: The core of the matter is creating groups, serving others, speaking well of people, opening the doors of our houses and giving out with generosity, that is what the matter is all about. And all of these things are, in fact, some of the characteristic signs of futuwwa.
We passed on this message to Shaykh Abdalhaqq and with only those five words, he understood perfectly the message and delivered a brilliant paper that he entitled: “The Science of Behaviour”. In his talk he advised the means to the inner transformation, or “revolution”, by which we can affect in a positive way the society in which we live and the community of which we are a part.
At the beginning of his talk Shaykh Abdalhaqq quoted two ayaats from the Noble Qur’an and one hadith of the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam. The first ayat was that one where Allah, glory be to Him, describes his Prophet, saying to him: “Indeed you are truly vast in character” (surat Al Qalam 68, ayat 4)
In the second ayat Allah tells His Messenger to tell his companions and, by extension, his entire Ummah, the following: “Say, ‘If you love Allah, then follow me and Allah will love you and will forgive you for your wrong actions.” (Surat Ali Imran, 3 ayat 31). As for the hadith, well-known to all of us, it was the famous saying of the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, “I have been sent to perfect good behaviour”, or “I was only sent to perfect the noble qualities of character”.
At the end of the introduction to his talk, Shaykh Abdalhaqq concluded by saying: “You are what you do”. In other words, the behaviour of the person determines who and what he is, and it is his actions that shape his life and his destiny, socially and individually.
Therefore, on those bases I want to say something to you today. I will use as my ingredients the five words of Shaykh Abdalqadir, the message described by those five words, and the beginning of the paper of Shaykh Abdalhaqq. Let’s see “what basket we will be able to make with those wickers” [allusion to a Spanish proverb]
“You are what you do”. One might think that this refers to the individual, that I am what I do, but that is not the way to understand it, because what I do is also social, it affects others, what you do has an effect on the people around you. As we all know, a community of people is made up of individuals and if the individuals of that community only do one thing, the community only does that thing. If the members of the community only reach up to here, the community only reaches up to here. If on the other hand, the members of the community are capable of reaching that much further, then the whole community will reach that far. Hence the title of this talk: “A community will achieve the position its members are prepared to aspire”. Or, in other words: “A community will reach as far as its members are prepared to reach”.
Now, having understood that, I would like to go back in time, to ancient Greece, the place where two often repeated words in this seminar have its origin: nomos and paideia. I remember that in one of the previous years the theme of this Seminar was precisely “A New Nomos, A Renewed Paideia”. We are talking about classical Greece, the home of Aristotle and Plato, the cradle of our civilization. That was a community, illustrated graphically in the poster of this year’s event, which had the ability of educating.
I would like to introduce, in addition to the two terms already mentioned, nomos and paideia, a new term. It is again a word from ancient Greece, one that indicates one of the necessary foundations to perfect the paideia, or, if you prefer, a needed element if we want to renew the paideia. That word is areté. Areté is a Greek word that has its roots in the comparative form of the adjective agathós, “good”, which, in turn, comes from the root aga, “the best” and is based on the inseparable prefix “ari-“, that points towards an idea of excellence, from where the term aristós is derived (aristós being the superlative of “select or distinguished”, that was used in plural to denominate the nobility, or the aristocracy, in other words: the elite).
If we were to translate areté by a single word, perhaps we would say: “excellence”. On the other hand, if we try to translate from Arabic the word ihsan by just one word, perhaps that word would be “excellence”. Is this a coincidence? No, I can assure you it is not a coincidence.
I dare to say that the areté of the Greeks is in Western culture the closest thing to Ihsan, as we understand it: as that series of noble qualities we must embody as individuals, in order to be able to raise the level of our communities. If we want to define it with a different word, we could perfectly use the word futuwwa.
With the passing of time the original meaning of areté in classical Greece was somehow lost and, at the beginning of the Roman era, its meaning become associated exclusively to war and warriors, related to the glory achieved in the battlefields. But in its original context areté consisted mainly in the cultivation and implementation of three qualities: andreia (‘courage’), sofrosine (‘common-sense, moderation’) y dicaiosine (‘justice’). Whoever possessed these three qualities would hold fast to them and would practice them in all situations of life, with the near and the stranger, individually and collectively. Doing this made what they called a “citizen”, a beneficial and distinguished citizen. To us, when someone possesses those qualities, we say he is a person on the path of excellence, on the way of purification of his ego.
Plato, in his Republic, goes a bit further, and adds a fourth quality, prudence. At that point these four qualities become the four noble qualities known as the “four cardinal virtues”. Plato explains them in the following manner:
Justice (the fundamental virtue) – the virtue which opens access to knowledge of oneself. Plato describes justice as the virtue that founds and preserves the other virtues because only the one who understands justice can attain the other three; when someone possesses all four virtues, justice will keep them all united in him. It is as saying that justice is the backbone of all other qualities.
Prudence – the virtue that implies acting with fairness, adequately and cautiously, communicating with others by means of clear, literal, careful and appropriate language, that is, respecting the feelings, the life and the liberties of others.
Strength – to overcome fear, while avoiding temerity. Strength ensures firmness in the face of difficulties and steadfastness in pursuit of goodness, to the point of accepting the sacrifice of one’s own life for a just cause.
Temperance – the moral virtue that moderates the seducing drives of pleasures and procures balance in the use of created and shared properties. It guarantees the mastery of the will over and above the instincts and keeps desires within the limits of honesty. A tempered person directs his appetites towards goodness, adheres himself to a healthy discretion and does not let himself to be dragged along by “following the passion of his appetites or of his heart.”
Note at this point how Plato gives us the way to acquire these qualities, how to attain them in our lives. It is as if he would give us the keys to enter through a door. In brief this is what he says: Prudence is derived from the exercise of reason; strength comes from the acting out of emotions or of the spirit; temperance is achieved by the control the will exerts over the desires and appetites of the self, and justice is the result of all of these, since justice is the state in which every element of the mind is in line with the rest. And all of them are under the rule of one organ in the body, which, if it is sound and healthy, the rest of the body will be healthy, and if it becomes corrupt, the rest of the body will be corrupt. That organ is the heart.
While listening to this I am sure someone might say: “But you are talking about futuwwa!”, someone else might say: “But you are actually describing the qualities of tasawwuf!”, and a third one could say: “What you are describing coincides exactly with the characteristics of asabiyya!” (that term to which we will refer later, being so important in Ibn Khaldun’s Muqqaddima). It may be that someone even thinks: “But all of this, about which you are talking, is the mission for which the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, was sent!” which, as we have mentioned before was: “perfecting and completing the noble qualities of character and behaviour”.
And the truth of the mater is, yes, whoever sees that is right, it is all connected. Ancient Greece reached to the level that it reached, attained that apex of civilisation, because its citizens had adopted and embodied those qualities, or, expressed in their own terminology, that areté which we have seen earlier.
In the early period of the first Muslim community, in the time of the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, and his companions, they achieved what they achieved, and Islam spread swiftly, faster than wildfire, because they acquired and embodied those qualities, or, in our own terminology, that futuwwa, which we have mentioned before.
In the era of Al-Andalus, they reached where they reached and they attained that pinnacle of civilisation because they were people who adopted and embodied among themselves those qualities, or, if we prefer to say it in their own terminology, that asabiyya.
How then does a community of people, how does a society attain its highest realisation, its zenith in all fields of society? Or, in other words, when does a community arrive to that high level at which it becomes capable of educating? The answer is: when its members are prepared to take on in their own lives the noble qualities, when they are ready to change themselves by acquiring and steeping themselves in the qualities of areté, the characteristics of futuwwa and the makarim al akhlaq – the virtuous aspects of character and behaviour.
At this point I am sure that many of you will have remembered the ayat from the Noble Qur’an, one that has been quoted many times at this very stage in this same gathering in the 8 years that we have been holding these seminars on education. The ayat number eleven of the Surat of Thunder. Allah, glory belongs to Him, says: “Allah never changes a people’s state until they change what is in themselves.”
This ayat contains the key to understand what we are saying and the ayat is applicable in both senses, both to goodness and to evil, both for the improvement of a people as for the deterioration of a people, and in consequence of a community. What I really want to say is that the way in which we behave has a direct repercussion, whether positive or negative, in who we are, in what happens to us and in what kind of community we live in. This is an essential aspect of how Allah has arranged existence and because of that it is so vital for us to understand this.
Let’s look for a moment to how individual behaviour can affect negatively the community. Let’s have a look to the direct relation that exists between various types of evil behaviour and the harmful consequences, both social and political, which come as a result. The harmful consequences of evil behaviour are well expressed in the following hadith, transmitted in the Muwwata: “Yahya informed me, from Malik, from Yahya ibn Said, that he had heard Abdullah ibn Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, say: “Never does fraud appear among a people but that terror takes root in their hearts; never does fornication become widespread but that death becomes plentiful among them; never does a people give short in the measurement and the weight but that their provision becomes throttled; never does a people judge without truth but that shedding of blood becomes prevalent among them; never does a people betray their trusts but that Allah gives their enemies supremacy above them.”
These words are a clear example of what we are trying to get to today. They refer to the devaluation, which affects a community whose members forget good behaviour and adopt a bad one. In other words, when a people stops behaving upright, that community is doomed to fail, they forget goodness and, because of their own actions, they take themselves and the whole community to utter loss. When shame is lost, there are no limits left. This was expressed by the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, when he said: “Part of what people have learned from the words of the earlier prophets is: if you don’t have shame, then do what you like.”
But what happens in the opposite case? What happens when the members of a community steep themselves in futuwwa? If they embody areté, if they take on those five things which Shaykh Abdalqadir wrote for us? That community flourishes and reaches the highest peaks, both inwardly and outwardly.
Abu Huraira, may Allah be pleased with him, narrated that a man came to the Prophet asking him for hospitality. He, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, sent someone to his wives requesting to prepare something or to send him something to eat. They said: “We only have water”. So the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, asked: “Who would give this man hospitality?” One of the men of the Ansar replied: “I will.” And he took him to his house and told his wife: “Let’s honour the guest of the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam.” She said: “We only have a bit of food for our children. The only thing we have in the house is the dinner for the children.” The man said to his wife: “Cook the food, light the lamp on and put the children to sleep.” The woman did as he told her: she cooked the meal, lit the lamp and put the children to sleep. Later, when the moment arrived to serve supper, they sat at the table. All of a sudden the host stood up as if he was going to arrange the lamp and instead he put it off, so that in darkness the hosts could not be seen, when they only pretended to eat. They would bring their hand to the plate but did not take any food, leaving all to the guest. And thus they went to bed hungry. The next morning the man went to see the Messenger of Allah and he, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, said: “Allah was smiling last night as He was looking at you and your family”. And then Allah descended the revelation: “(…) and [they] prefer them to themselves even if they themselves are needy. It is the people whoa are safe-guarded from the avarice of their own selves who are successful.” (59:9)
Thus the shahaba achieved what they achieved. This event is a very clear sample of how, when a people is able to take on and immerse themselves in the qualities of futuwwa, that is the cause why everything flourishes around them and they compete with one another in good actions. For, what could a people not achieve, what goal or aim would resist itself to a community whose members are prepared to give generously to a stranger, although they themselves are in dire straits?
Let us now face to the term used by Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah, already mentioned in this talk. I mean asabiyya. The truth is that the most widespread meaning of the word is: “that family clan, or that force that resides in family ties, which, when present, make a family strong and therefore allows it to hold power and rule”. It is often understood as “solidarity”, and there are people who use the word to imply “nationalism”, but the truth is that all of those understandings –while I am not denying that the term may encompass them- do not assemble the complete meaning. Perhaps the definitions that come closer to what we intend to say are the ones by De Slane, in his translation to the French language, who renders asabiyya as “esprit de corps” and in turn Franz Rosenthal translates it to English as “group feeling”, and Juan Feres to the Spanish language as “espíritu de coligación”.
I prefer to see this term from the perspective and focus its meaning has for a community, that is, a group of people, who share the same beliefs, who embody the same behaviour, having high qualities and embarking together on the same ship in order to reach their common aims and to fulfil their aspirations and expectations.
In this respect, the definition that best suits the meaning I have just expressed, is the one given by Edward William Lane in his splendid “An Arabic-English Lexicon”, which explains it as the: ““…quality of an individual who is possessing ‘Asabiyyah which refers
to the action of ones in helping his people or his group against any aggressive action, the quality of a person who is angry for the sake of his group and protecting them, the action of ones who invites others to help his group, to combine or league with them in facing those who act hostility towards them whether they are wrongdoers or wronged, the action of an individual who associate with others or of him who protects others or
partisanship and a strong association with holds numbers of person closely bound based on the same interest and opinion…””
This is how I see asabiyya, the unification around beliefs, and the links generated when a group of people are struggling for the sake of one and the same goal, when they are committed to their group, defending it. They defend its unity, they defend what they believe and they fight to establish it. Then the bonds and ties that are developed among those people are stronger, I would dare to say, than those of blood and family, because at the core of that bond are shared goals and, in our case, above all is the bond of the love of Allah. When a group of people struggles united for the sake of what they truly believe, there can be very little resistance being able to oppose that force. They are like a huge wave, a tsunami, in the way of which nothing can resist.
This is made clear by Ibn Khaldun himself when he says in Chapter 8 of Book 2: “True kinship consists of that union of the souls that upholds the blood ties and compels men to solidarity; if that virtue is excluded then kinship is nothing but a thing that can be done without, an imaginary value deprived of any reality. In order to be useful it ought to interlace the affections and unite the spirits. If that union is manifest, it stimulates the souls towards that tie of sympathy and affinity that is in its nature.” What these words mean is that a common cause, whether political or religious, common goals that unify the spirits and the minds, prevail over and above the mere ties of blood.
The meaning of asabbiya is now clear, or rather the angle from where we want to look at it in our lecture today. However, someone may ask: What is the use of asabiyya? Ibn Khaldun himself replies to that in Chapter 13 of Book 2. He says: “Wherever a respectable and feared asabiyya exists, made up by elements of a clear-cut and impregnable strain, there, the most advantageous and definite position of lineage is obtained, whose vigorous fruits yield successful results.”
At this point, knowing what asabiyya is all about, and how it can help us, the only question left to us is: “How do we acquire or attain asabiyya?” And again the answer is to be found in the Muqaddimah, in the chapter 20 of the Book 2, entitled: “Without virtues power is never acquired”. I strongly recommend all of you to read this chapter. In it says Ibn Khaldun: “We have mentioned that glory and strength, in order for them to be real, must be based upon a necessary foundation: asabiyya, along with the noble qualities that, by way of complementing, will serve to endorse its perfection. Now, since sovereignty is the aim of asabiyya, it is also the aim of its complements. Without those complementary qualities (the noble features of character), asabiyya would be like a maimed body, or like a person that presents himself in public completely naked.”
It is clear now, we have reached the climax of this talk and we have understood the meaning of the title of this discourse. Without those complementary qualities, without nobility of character and behaviour, without makarim al akhlaq, futuwwa, without areté, asabiyya is of no use, is a maimed body, it is like someone appearing in front of the public completely naked. This takes us to be beginning of this talk, or rather it takes us to the beginning of Shaykh Abdalhaqq’s discourse here in 2012: “I was only sent to perfect the noble qualities of character” or “I have been sent to perfect good behaviour”.
If you prefer we can return to the five words written by Shaykh Abdalqadir: Jama’at, khidma, speaking well, hospitality, giving.
We already know the theory, it is known by all of us, we have heard it many times and are aware of its principal elements. The light has reached us, the message has been transmitted to us. Now what do we do with it? What do we do with that light?
The matter is in our hands. We will reach as far as we want to, or rather, as far as we are prepared to reach, since we cannot and must not expect that others will do it for us. It is us who must do it. What that entails is that it is us who, in the first place and before anyone else, must immerse ourselves in that light and take on those qualities, which we mentioned earlier. We have to look at ourselves with sincerity and ask ourselves: what changes do we have to make if we want to transmit this light and enlighten others with it? What must be done so that Allah will change our state and all that surrounds us?
Remember the ayat we recited earlier: “Allah never changes a people’s state until they change what is in themselves.” (13:11) I am going to dare to paraphrase the ayat, please allow me this act of boldness. I say:
Truly Allah does not give to a group of people futuwwa until they take upon themselves futuwwa; truly Allah does not give to a group of people asabiyya until they have embodied in themselves its complementary qualities, i.e. the noble qualities of character and behaviour; truly a community does not attain areté until its members have fully adopted the qualities of areté.
The matter depends on us, it is in our hands. If we want, we will reach to the highest of the high. If we want, we will take this community to the most elevated place. If we want, we will reach what the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu alaihi wa sallam, and his sahaba reached. They were luminous lamps in the midst of darkness; they illuminated themselves with a light that spread out and illuminated everything around them.