Talk held by Aminah Tønnsen on december 11, 2009 at the interreligious climate pilgrimage
Muslims believe in
one God, Lord of the Worlds, Master of the Universe, and Creator of all
existence. This is the very basis of Islam:
tawheed or oneness.
Not only God is one – so is His creation: animals, mountains, oceans, and plants. Everything created is a gift from God to man.
Humankind, too, is one – despite differences in language, ethnicity, religion, social status etc.
When God had created the heavens and the earth and all that is between them, He announced to the angels:
“Verily I will create a khalifah on the earth” (Qur’an 2:30)
The term khalifah has often been translated into
‘vicegerent’. A modern and less
archaic equivalent for khalifah would
be ‘trustee’ or ‘moral agent’. God intended to create a trustee to fulfil a very particular role.
The term khalifah not only implies trust (amana) but also responsibility, which implies freedom of choice and of action.
Humankind as such was created in interdependence and mutual obligation.
angels – who are themselves creatures of pure light without free will, and who
have no knowledge except what God has taught them – voiced their concern about
God’s intention by saying:
“Why put on the earth one who will cause corruption on it and shed blood – whereas we glorify You and praise Your name?” God answered: “I know what you do not know.” (2:30)
God never creates a thing without a clearly defined purpose. He had a plan for this new creation, “for God is the best of planners.” (3:54). And God knew that He would never let this new creature on his own, that He would send prophets and scriptures in order to explain His guidance to them in detail.
Thus God created man and endowed him with faculties that He hadn’t given any other of His creatures. “He breathed into man of His spirit” (15:29) and gave him the germ of intellect, the faculty to distinguish between right and wrong, as well as freedom of choice and freedom of action.
Being khalifah is equivalent to fulfilling
one’s human destiny as a moral agent, whose responsibility is to participate in
upholding the harmony of the universe.
In respect to society, harmony means working for justice.
In respect to the universe, harmony means not to destroy the balance that God has created. According to the Qur’an:
“God erected heaven and established for all things the balance (mizân), so that man might not transgress due balance. Weigh, therefore, your deeds with equity, and do not skimp in the balance.” (55:7-9)
The ability to
make choices facilitates the completion of our trust. To best fulfil our trust,
the Qur’an also describes the human being as ‘abd’ or ‘servant before God’.
The servant is entrusted to complete service to God.
The agent-servant paradigm in the Qur’an sets up an understanding of both the limits of human will and the expectations on humanity for using free will toward moral service. Although humans are given a certain capacity through agency, that capacity must be used morally in the service of God and of maintaining cosmic harmony, as a responsibility.
There is, however, a reciprocal relationship between responsibility and capacity. The one with greater capacity is charged with a greater responsibility, and vice versa.
We are responsible
for the choices we make, and we will be held accountable for all our choices
via the ultimate judgement:
“That day people will emerge to see the results of their actions. Whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it. Whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will see it.” (99:7-8)
“No bearer of burdens can bear another’s burden. If one heavenly laden should call another to bear his load, not the least portion of it can be carried by the other. Not even a close relative.” (35:18)
MUSLIMS ACCEPT that God is the ultimate judge of human actions, because only God knows the full cosmic, existential, and practical implications of all our actions. Our intentions must continuously correspond to the call of our faith as active agents fulfilling those intentions.
The responsibility of acting on the earth to fulfil moral agency involves acting in accordance with the guidance to right and wrong given in the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions.
I use the word guidance – others would say ‘God’s will’ or ‘God’s law’, notions that unfortunately have got a quite negative undertone nowadays, thanks to the media.
Also, the very
meaning of the word ‘islam’, which is ‘obedience’
or ‘submission’ has got a very
negative and even un-Islamic meaning because of the constant stereotyping of
For that reason I personally prefer to use words like ‘surrender’ – or even ‘engaged surrender’. ‘Islam’ is not a question of blindly following the exact wording of the Qur’an or some specific so-called authorities, like a slave obeys his owner for fear of punishment.
‘Islam’ means voluntary and conscious acting according to the guidance of the Qur’an. This, too, implies responsibility, as Muslims believe that there will be an ultimate judgement of each individual’s actions.
also means accepting to find the motivation both to understand the divine guidance
and to act according to that understanding.
While one cannot ever come to understand completely the divine guidance because its totality begins and ends in transcendence and therefore is incomprehensible, the term responsibility implies at least an initiative towards understanding, followed by practices that establish that will in real-life circumstances.
invested with this responsibility. Some may acquire greater facility in
understanding. Some may acquire greater facility in acting upon their
understandings. To the end of full responsibility, a Muslim is required to
continue to seek understanding, individually and in concert with others. God
ordered the Prophet to say to his followers:
“I admonish you on one particular point: stand before God in pairs or on your own – and then reflect. Your companion (i.e. the Prophet) is not possessed. He is only a warner come to you ahead of a terrible punishment.” (34:46)
Still, this responsibility includes the flexibility of changing one’s perspective on any issue, as humanity acquires more understanding toward a better means to fulfil that which best reflects the divine guidance. Therefore, one must act better as one’s understanding develops. This growth in understanding and action is equally true of humanity at large as it is for the individual in terms of personal growth. One’s personal spiritual development forms the cornerstone of one’s activities in both the public and the private sphere of society.
To sum up: The
term khalifah is best described as
man’s responsibility for God’s creation.
And according to the prophetic tradition, the Prophet Muhammad said: “Will you serve God? Serve your fellow creatures first.”
ONE COULD ASK: As man has free will to choose to act according to God’s guidance – or to choose not to do so, why be concerned about what happens on the Day of the ultimate judgement?
The Qur’an tells
us that indifference or rejection of God’s guidance will have severe
“It is He who made you khalifs on the earth. So, whoever rejects God’s guidance, this denial of his will fall back upon him: for their denial of this truth does but add to the deniers’ loathsomeness in their Sustainer’s sight and, thus, their denial of this truth does but add to the deniers’ loss … Then, when their time comes, God sees His sincere servants!” (35:39 & 45)
– and with reference to the ongoing conference, the Qur’an says:
“God erected heaven and established for all things the balance (mizân),so that man might not transgress due balance. Weigh, therefore, your deeds with equity, and do not skimp in the balance. God created the earth for the benefit of all living creatures.” (55:7-10)
And the Qur’an reminds us:
“Do not squander what you have. Behold, the squanderers are, indeed, brothers of the evil ones – inasmuch as Satan has indeed proved most ungrateful to his Sustainer.” (17:26-27)
The Qur’an even warns us what could happens, if man does not fulfil his obligations and does not take good care of nature, if man destroys the God-given balance and exploits the resources of nature ruthlessly:
- The earth
could dry up:
“Have you thought about what you sow in the ground? Is it you who cause it to grow – or are We the Cause? If We wished We could crumble it to dry powder, and you would be left devoid of crops, driven to dispair: ‘We are ruined, in fact we are destitute!’” (56:63-67)
- Water could become bitter
and be spoiled:
“Have you thought about the water that you drink? Is it you who send it down from the clouds – or are We the Sender? If We wished We could have made it bitter, so will you not give thanks?” (56:68-70)
- Wood could become
“Have you thought about the fire that you light? Is it you who make the trees that fuel it grow – or are We the Grower? We have made it to be a reminder and a comfort for travellers in the wild. So glorify the name of your Lord, the Magnificent!” (56:71-74)
- Subsoil water could
“Say: ‘He is the All-Merciful. We believe in Him and we trust Him. Soon you will know who is clearly misguided.’ Say: ‘What do you think? If, one morning, your water disappears into the earth – who will bring you running water?’ “ (67:29-30)
indeed. Consequences foretold in a scripture which was sent down and written
down some 14 centuries ago. Consequences that have become a reality in many
parts of the world today:
“Corruption has appeared on land and in the sea as an outcome of what man’s hands have brought about: and so He will let them taste the evil of some of their doings, so that they might return to the right path.” (30:41)
AS BELIEVERS we are conscious of the enormous gift that God has bestowed upon us – and of the responsibility implied:
“For, no single thing exists that does not have its source with God; and God only sends it down in accordance with a measure well defined. God lets loose the winds to fertilize [plants] and He sends down water from the skies and lets us drink thereof: and it is not we who dispose of its source – for behold, it is God – God alone – who grants life and causes to die, and it is God alone who shall remain after all else will have passed away!” (15:21-23)
Our future is at
stake – as is the future of coming generations. We need to change our way of
living and rethink the premises for our society.
Every principle underlying the context of building a living community committed to certain values is articulated fundamentally in the Qur’an. However, the Qur’anic guidance is often specific to the time and circumstances of its revelation.
The Prophet was the exemplar par excellence under the specific social and political circumstances of his community. The fundamental principles, however, must be continuously re-evaluated from the perspective of the time of their specific embodiment throughout the challenges, changes, and limitations of history.
In particular, both justice and responsibility are values that are both universal in principle and relative to their manifestation in time and space.
The Qur’an reminds
“Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves.” (13:11)
May God guide us and help us to fulfil our responsibilities for His creation. Amen.
© Aminah Tønnsen, december 2009