The Light Within

Zainab UmarOctober 27, 2016PowerInterfaith Connections

The television screams the latest headline with urgent tenacity. It feels like my world is crumbling before my eyes.

Surely, all this bloodshed, this hatred, this intolerance, cannot be my religion, my faith, my Islam? Surely this cannot be anything but a gross misinterpretation of a religion of peace and a blatant misuse of power?

My faith in my faith begins to dwindle. Disillusioned, I open my translated copy of the Quran. Instantly my faith is restored. Written there, in soothing black font, are the words: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes that you may know each other (not that you may despise each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you” (49:13).

I am relieved because I finally understand. That hideous doppelgänger, that horrendous impersonation, was not my Islam. My religion is as different from that inhumanity as the sky is from the fragment of a mirror, even if the latter faces upward and tries to mimic it.

Still, after that initial jolt, I feel as if I have to be wary, constantly suspicious. As if I have to rethink my religion, and somehow determine whether it is the right one.

So what is power in Islam? Perhaps it would be easier to answer this after examining the different features we associate with power. Obviously for there to be power, there must be a power void somewhere else (if everyone had the same level of authority, power would not exist). You could say that a leader, a person or institution that wields control over the “powerless,” is an integral part of the equation. Is a leader a guide, a pioneer, or a dictator?

The answer is in the name of the faith itself. Islam literally means “submission” to God. God, or Allah, is the ultimate sovereign power, and man is his vicegerent or naib (an Arabic word meaning “second in command”), because man is Allah’s best creation. But does that mean we should misuse and exercise our power over other beings?

"But does that mean we should misuse and exercise our power over other beings?"

I remember an incident when I was out for a picnic with my cousins and I picked out a vibrant bouquet of beautiful, satiny roses in one of the recreation parks in Lahore, my city. To my 4-year-old eyes, it was the most beautiful bouquet I had ever seen, and after waving it around to flaunt it as much as I could, I stowed it away in my knapsack to give to my mother later.

When I got home, instead of those gorgeous velvet roses, there was an ashy mass of crushed, forlorn petals and stems. One of my cousins exclaimed, “You killed them for no reason!”

I realized I had plucked those flowers simply because they looked “pretty,” and on top of that, I didn’t even take care of them afterwards. I had misused my power. They were only roses, but the principle remains the same regardless of the scope.

In Islam, the role of a caliph, or leader, is often misunderstood. I always quote the example of Hazrat Umar, the second Caliph of Islam. He said, “If a kid goat would die on the bank of Euphrates, I am answerable to Allah for that.”

It mesmerizes me how a man could take such enormous responsibility and be so selfless in his power over others. During the days of famine, Umar would carry sacks of flour on his back to distribute among the needy. Once, a woman brought a claim against him; Umar appeared in court for trial, and when the Judge rose as a sign of respect, Umar reprimanded him by saying, “This is the first act of injustice you did to this woman!” Such justice is not borne by leaders in this day and age.

Islam does not discriminate between rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless. Color, caste, and creed are not its yardsticks. Instead, the only method of exalting oneself is through piety, justice, and righteousness. In fact, it is the responsibility of those in power — be it physically, economically, or politically — to aid those who are less endowed. This does not just apply to political leaders. Each one of us has power over other things or other people.

We seldom realize it, but a single word can make someone’s life miserable, and this is a misuse of power. Once, when I was in second grade, I was in the school shop trying to push through a queue of girls twice my height to approach the counter. I was shoved here and there by the perpetually swarming mass of white-clad students, and finally I gave up and decided to ask for help. I tapped on a senior’s back and said clearly, “Excuse me, could you please buy me a juice box?”

The girl gave me a nasty smirk. After raising her eyebrows at the money in my outstretched hand, she loudly proclaimed, “No.”

The group of friends around her burst into laughter, and my ears turned red in embarrassment. I vaguely recall crying in the bathroom that day. When I think of it now, I feel angry with my former, stupid self. I should have stood up to them! Instead, that one word became the reason for my sorrow and distress.

Power also applies to both the privileged and underprivileged. Islam propagates the rights of orphans, widows, the poor, and all those in need. It is a duty for those with enough resources to help a brother who faces some hardship. Indeed, zakat, or charity, is one of the five pillars of Islam. When I see the intense poverty around me, the hundreds of children who do not have a single nutritious meal a day, let alone education, my heart goes out to them. Zakat is the Islamic solution to the issue, and when I think about it, the simplicity and practicality of it resonates with me.

"Zakat, or charity, is one of the five pillars of Islam."

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

It used to be on the lips of every Spiderman fan when I was little, but it seems we have all forgotten the principles of justice, equity, and social responsibility. In Kindergarten, I was taught another universal, slightly overused phrase: “sharing is caring.” When I refused to part with a nugget in my lunchbox and the teacher repeated the phrase like a mantra, I grudgingly thrust the nugget at my classmate.

Despite these lessons, each day we see more instances of unspeakable crimes against humanity, corruption, and inhumane persecution. The Army Public School tragedy last year in Peshawar, Pakistan, was one of the most devastating incidents. For a month, Pakistan came to a standstill as we mourned the loss of our beloved children. The terrorists wanted us to stop going to school, to stop fighting them. It worked, but only for a month, because we realized that they were exercising power over us. In the end, they could not break the power of our hearts, of our will, of our country.

I am still discovering myself, my religion, and how both go hand in hand. I know there will be times when I will experience other internal conflicts. But I am willing to make the effort, just like a patriot is willing to defend his country. This is where I belong.

Inside and outside my country there are genocides and violence, misdeeds and wrongs. Man kills man if he disagrees with him about religion, politics — anything under the sun. But this is not what my religion teaches. My religion tells me to discriminate between right and wrong, not black and white, not Hindu and Christian, not landlord and beggar. My religion tells me that power comes with a duty, and if someone misuses it, we need to take a stand.

In the end, we are all equal in the eyes of God. We are neither superior nor inferior to other races, religions, castes, or creeds. This is my faith. This is my Islam.

Zainab Umar is a 16-year old student at the Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan. Her hobbies include writing, reading, art, and public speaking.