Global Awakening:  Toward the Interfaith Harmony of Global Ethics

Global Awakening:  Toward the Interfaith Harmony of Global Ethics

by Dr. Robert D. Crane

Two years after the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring, we are in a new era.  Some people call it simply the Post-Arab Spring.  Some call it the Arab Winter.  The Chinese written language has a single character perhaps better suited to reflect the prospects of a new era.  This character has two meanings.  The first is “crisis”.  The second meaning is “opportunity”. 

Ever since the time of the first cavemen millions of years ago we humans have tried and failed to balance two opposing approaches or paradigms of thought. One is based on what one might call the “threat mentality”.  We find this among military strategists, whose job is to prepare for the worst and focus only on the “bad guys”.  The other premise for action is the “opportunity mentality”, which goes beyond mere tolerance to seek interfaith harmony within the diversity of a pluralist world.  This is the highest calling of the ambassadors of good will who gathered on February 26th, 2013, in Kuala Lumpur at the Ambassadors Conclave of the International Seminar on Interfaith Harmony and Tolerance in cooperation with the International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM), Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Office and the Ma’din Academy of India.

In 1981, when President Ronald Reagan asked me to be the U.S. Ambassador to Shaykh Zayed bin Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, my first initiative was to write an essay of guidance entitled “The Diplomacy of the Prophet”.

The models for Muslims and for the world were the first two ambassadors of Islam.  The first was Mus’ab ibn ‘Umair, who migrated to Abyssinia with other followers of the Prophet Muhammad, salah Allahu ‘alayhi wa salam, in order to assure that at least some Muslims would survive the persecution by the Quraysh. Mus’ab then was appointed as ambassador to Madinah (Yathrib) and prepared ten thousand people there as Ansar to welcome the Muslims from Makkah on the Day of Hijra.

The second Muslim ambassador, and by far the most famous one, was Mu’adh ibn Jabal, who was recruited by Mus’ab ibn ‘Umair.  When Makkah was peacefully liberated, the Prophet appointed Mu’adh to teach the people the message of Islam.  Sometime after the Prophet had returned to Madinah, messengers came to him from the kings of Yemen, who ruled three different nations, one Jewish, one Christian, and one Zoroastrian.  They welcomed him and requested that he send an ambassador to develop good relations.  For many years thereafter four nations, including one ruled by Muslims, lived in harmony during an era of what at the time was chaos throughout the entire world. 

The Prophet appointed Mu’adh as the Emir of a delegation to explain the teachings of Islam to these four nations.  He then tested Mu’adh by asking him: “When you teach, according to what will you judge?” “According to the Book of God,” replied Mu’adh.  “And if you find nothing there?”  “Then according to the Sunnah of the Prophet of God”, he replied. “And if you find nothing in it?”  “Then I will use my own reason (exercise ijtihad) to form my own judgment.”  The Prophet was pleased with this reply and said: “Praise be to God Who has guided the messenger of the Prophet to that which pleases the Prophet.”

This was the formal foundation of Islamic normative jurisprudence, which later became known as the maqasid al shari’ah, as distinct from the specific rulings, today known as the fiqh.  At the Second Parliament of the World Religions in Chicago in 1993 perhaps the greatest Christian theologian of the 20th century, Hans Kung, applied a more universally acceptable name for this concept of normative law.  He called it “global ethics”.  In 2005, Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad of Jordan, head of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, built on this to lead a movement known as the Common Word, and in 2010, the Dalai Lama attempted to build on this still further by initiating a movement known as Common Ground.

This jurisprudential branch of knowledge has always existed in human history but it originated among Muslims in the practice of the Prophet Muhammad to gather together his most gifted followers and put to them both hypothetical and real cases for judgment.  After each had given his judgment, the Prophet said, “Your conclusions are good, but I want to know what principles you used in reaching them”. 

According to Shaykh Taha Jaber al Alwani, who today is a member of the World Fiqh Council in Makkah, the Prophet’s nephew, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and Mu’adh always reasoned from basic principles inherent in the nazm or coherence of the Qur’anic message.  These two were the best in developing the normative jurisprudence of what today we call human responsibilities and human rights.

The universal key to seeking the best in life by honoring our responsibilities and rights is the Islamic concept of infaq, which is the inclination to give rather than to take in life.  This is part of human nature or fitra, though it has to be educated in order to overcome the contrary impulses to take rather than to give.  Our common task as khulafa or stewards of creation in the search for transcendent harmony both within and among civilizations is to honor the wisdom found in Surah al An’am 116, tama’at kalimatu rabika sidqan wa ‘adlan, “The Word of Your Lord is fulfilled and completed in truth and justice”.

This raises several questions.  We know that there is such a thing as absolute truth, which it is our lifelong responsibility as sentient beings to seek as best we can.  But what is justice?  Can it originate universally from the Sunnat Allah through the three sources of haqq al yaqin or divine revelation, ‘ain al yaqin or scientific observation of the laws of the universe, including human nature, and ‘ilm al yaqin or the use of intellectual effort to understand the first two sources?  Can it be partially informed even by individual inspiration or ilham through the descent of the intellect from the transcendent to the nafs al mutma’ina or enlightened soul and on through the irreducible principles of human responsibilities and rights to the level of application and practice in the specifics of the fiqh?  Can the Islamic message thereby originate in love for application through the human will in a circular process of harmony, whereby the intellect and the will inform each other, as proposed in the second Islamic century perhaps for the first time by Imam Jafar al Siddiq? 

In short, can there be such a thing as global ethics, as recommended in my book, Rehabilitating the Role of Religion in the World through Global Ethics, first published electronically in The American Muslim ( ), in May and June 2009, and in my book, first published in the same e-zine in 2007 and in print three years later as The Natural Law of Compassionate Justice: An Islamic Perspective?  Is this what the President of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Hisashi Owada, is advocating in his monograph published as an Occasional Paper, Series 4, March 2012, in London by The Cordoba Foundation under the title, Evolving World: The Universality of International Law in a Globalizing World?

Justice through global ethics is the awareness and practice of human rights, which are the result of respecting the corresponding human responsibilities.  All human rights are interdependent and mutually supporting.  The most basic human right is the right to be oneself, which refers to the spiritual dimension and can be understood as freedom of religion, known as haqq al din.  This is related to haqq al nafs, which is respect for the human person as sacred, and haqq al nasl, which is respect for the human family and for communities all the way up to the nation because they are composed of persons.  A fourth related right is haqq al mahid, which is respect for the physical environment as sacred.

      These four guiding principles require four implementing principles.  The first is haqq al mal, which is respect for private property, especially individual ownership of the means of production.  At a secondary level this requires a system of banking, credit, and taxation that broadens access to ownership of productive wealth as essential for economic self-determination.  A product of this basic right is political self-determination or political freedom, haqq al hurriyah, based on acknowledgement that economic power is the key to political power.

      The last of the four implementing principles are haqq al karama, which is respect for human dignity, including gender equity, and haqq al ‘ilm, which is respect for the right to free speech and free assembly.

      These are the eight basic human responsibilities and associated human rights in classical Islamic jurisprudence, though the greatest scholars taught that the exact number of essential human rights and the architectonics of their implementation may change contextually according to time and place.

      The overriding requirement is that they remain in harmony, because they are all interdependent.  In Islamic philosophy this requirement is known as tawhid, which is the coherence of the diversity in creation that points to the oneness of the Creator.

      In practice tawhid informs the higher guidance that should guide the understanding and applicability of the fiqh or rules and regulations as spelled out by two of the greatest Islamic scholars, Shamsuddin ibn al-Qayyim (who died in 748 A.H., 1347 A.C.) and his mentor Imam Ahmad ibn Taymiyah (d. 728).  Ibn Qayyim wrote:  “The Islamic law is all about wisdom and achieving people’s welfare in this life and the afterlife.  It is all about justice, mercy, wisdom, and good.  Thus any ruling that replaces justice with injustice, mercy with its opposite, common good with mischief, or wisdom with nonsense, is a ruling that does not belong to the Islamic law.”

      At the highest level applicable to the universal jurisprudence of global ethics, tawhid consists of three basic premises.

The first is its holistic ontology, according to which the entire created order exists in unitary harmony.  The things and forces we can observe are real, but their existence comes from God.  They do not exist independently of His purpose.

The second premise is esthetic.  The nature of transcendent reality, and of all being, is Beauty, which precedes and is independent of cognition.  The flower in the desert is beautiful even if no person sees it.  Beauty, and necessarily therefore the normative law of global ethics consists of unity, symmetry, harmony, depth of meaning, and breadth of applicability.  The greatest beauty is the unitive principle of tawhid itself, because without it there could be no science and no human thought at all.  This is of controlling importance, because it means that the ideal system of law should be simple, symmetrical, deep, and comprehensive.

The third premise is epistemological.  All knowledge is merely a derivative and an affirmation of the unitary harmony inherent in everything that comes from God.  All creation worships God because He is One.  Every person is created with a need and a corresponding intuitive capability to seek and to know transcendent reality and to submit lovingly to God in thought and action.  This epistemological premise reinforces the first two, because it indicates that Islamic jurisprudence as part of a new era of global ethics exists to give meaning to everything man can observe.  And meaning comes from God, Who gives purpose to everything He has created.

Regardless of the school of thought one may follow, the discussion of the universal human responsibilities and rights culminates in what is the essence of tawhid and of every world religion.  This is the harmony of truth, love, and justice.

      The highest calling for all of us in the quest for truth, love, and justice is to recognize that charity is essential in both intent and practice, but the pursuit of justice through interfaith harmony and cooperation is equally essential in order to actualize for everyone the basic human rights of peace, prosperity, and freedom.

This essay is an expanded version of introductory comments prepared for the Global Harmony Association and its participation in the Ambassadors Conclave at the International Seminar on Interfaith Harmony and Tolerance on February 26th in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.