I recently stumbled across a story from Jerusalem in the early days of the British Mandate of Palestine. Concerns over ethnic and religious tensions between the inhabitants of Jerusalem lead the British to restrict access to holy sites by religion. British guards were now seen in quarters of Jerusalem asking for the religious identity of the passers-by before allowing them in.
In front of the Dome of the Rock, a guard would stand and ask “Musliman?”—meaning, are you a Muslim?—and if the passer by is indeed Muslim, they would respond “Musliman, alhamdulillah.”—’I am a Muslim, thank God‘.
I paused as I reflected upon this story, because suddenly I had saw new meaning in this simple phrase. A meaning I often glossed over. A meaning I might not necessarily believe, yet one I have come to appreciate.
The phrase Alhamdulillah is so ubiquitous in Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority countries. If someone asks a Muslim during the month of Ramadan if she is fasting, her response would be in the affirmative, followed by that same phrase Alhamdulillah—’thank God’.
At a very basic level, the reasoning behind thanking God for the most mundane of things is a typical religious tendency. God is the purported creator, after all, and He or She takes all the credit. But in Islam, I think, being grateful to God for the most mundane of things is not simply about giving credit to the creator, but a reflection on Islam’s understanding of Justice and Moral Desert—an understanding which I think is quite beautiful, at least in this instance.
When a Muslim thanks God for being Muslim, she is coming to terms with the very fact that she could have just as easily been born a non-Muslim (which, depending on the Muslim you ask, means her chances at going to heaven are greatly reduced). To me, it seems that this itself is an acknowledgement that humans are not owed anything at all by their creator. If you are born into the ‘correct’ religion, you should count yourself lucky—nothing about you is inherently better than others, no God, nature, or society ever owed you anything. You mere birth did not entitle you to be born in that religion. You should be grateful.
You might not see the beauty that I see in this take on the world. You might feel I am making the world sound like a harsh, unloving space, where you are entitled to nothing and are owed just that.
To this, I argue that Nature is indeed harsh and unloving, and that it shouldn’t take long to see that. Whether famine, death, or war—the simple fact that bad things happen to undeserving people should be enough to convince you that good things happens to undeserving people as well. The mere fact of being born does not entitle us to any form of dignity that we should expect from Nature—only our fellow human kind.
Islam reminds its adherents, it seems to me, that they should be grateful for being born in the right place at the right time. That the mere fact that they were born into privilege doesn’t mean that they had been entitled to it.
This, I think, holds lessons that the rest of us could find useful as well: Distinguish Nature and the harsh world we live in from the kindness of humanity around us; Accept that while Human Dignity is important, it is a contract and a set of mutual expectations that govern the realm of relationships in the Human Sphere—and not our relationship with Nature; Accept that Nature and Misfortune can strike the most unsuspecting man or woman.
Even if you are not convinced by the philosophical implications of reflecting on the state of Nature and the harshness of the world, I think these reflections could at least inform us on some of the core teachings of Islam. Many who are unfamiliar with Islam, attempting to understand it from the outside, quickly become uncomfortable with its most basic doctrine of submission to God. Some feel this submission is contrary to many humanists notions of free will and self-determination. But submission to God in Islam should not be conflated with a loss of self-agency, instead a mere resignation to—or, lack of rejection of—the realities on the ground. It is not a call to inaction, but rather a reminder that good and bad things happen to undeserving people alike, and rather than demanding compensation from nature, you should do something about it.
Of course, it goes without saying that I am projecting many of my personal and philosophical beliefs onto Islam. Something which is especially dubious when taking into account that I am not, and was never, an adherent of Islam. Instead of taking this as an explanation of Islam, take it as one person’s account of Islam—and even then, only an account of an aspect of Islam. I simply offer an interpretation which I think is consistent, and one which I think at least some Muslims adhere to.
Whether this is an account of the real Islam, or an imagined clone, I think it offers a few insights that anybody could appreciate and find helpful: expect nothing from nature, work to make sure fellow human kind can expect something from you, and hope there is someone you could expect something from.