Updated: May 17, 2020
“remember the body
of your community
breathe in the people
who sewed you whole
it is you who became yourself
but those before you
are a part of your fabric.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this poem by Rupi Kaur lately, and about what it says about community lately – about the things that hold us together and the things that drive us apart. This crisis has, in many ways, been a testament to both the power of community and the real dangers that present themselves when our sense of community fails.
Take, for example, the hoarding behaviours we saw early in March. In many ways, hoarding is the perfect example of what happens when we don’t think of community in a broad enough way – when we are only able to see ourselves and those immediately connected with us, and we put our needs as individuals or as small family units ahead of the needs of our larger group. We want to make sure we are cared for, that what we need is attended to, even at the expense of other people. The same mentality is present when people choose to ignore health officials and needlessly venture into public spaces – we are prioritizing our own desires over the wellbeing of others, often because we think of those other people as being sufficiently removed from us and that they may seem to matter less.
Interestingly, this kind of myopic narrow perception about who matters was precisely what Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his family) responded to in his time. He belonged to a society in which people’s position, their very value as human beings, was determined by the small and particular group they belonged to. Their safety and security depending entirely on their clan and their tribe, and people were only expected to care for those within those small circles.
The message of Islam presented a direct alternative to that kind of narrow vision. It encouraged the people in Arabia to consider themselves as part of a new, larger group, the ummah. The idea of ummah was a radical one at the time – it proposed that all of us come from the same ‘um’, the same mother, and are therefore all one family. We see this ethos represented in the first verse of Sura Nisa in the Qur’an, which says:
Be careful of your duty to your Lord
Who created you from a single soul
and from it created its mate
and from them twain hath spread abroad
a multitude of men and women”
The idea that we share a common root, that we come from the same source, and therefore owe one another the same loyalty and love and allegiance that we would traditionally have reserved for our tribe was revolutionary, and it turned the Prophet’s society on its head. Indeed in its earliest formulations, the concept of ummah went beyond even just those who believed in the Prophet and his message. Instead, as we see in the Charter of Medina, it included everyone who wanted to belong to a just and mutually caring society, whether they were Muslim or not. it was a deep embodiment of the spirit of generosity that today’s snowflake, al-Kareem, represents. And the spirit of that encompassing, generous ummah continues to inspire people even into the modern day, in poems like the one by the great Persian poet, Saadi, which is inscribed on the wall at the United Nations building in New York:
“Human beings are members of a whole,
In creation of one essence and soul.
If one member is afflicted with pain,
Other members uneasy will remain.
If you've no sympathy for human pain,
The name of human you cannot retain!”
(Rhyming translations by M. Aryanpoor)
It is this very perspective that we have also seen take hold again during this pandemic. Despite the examples of individualism and selfishness, we have seen far more examples of people coming together, taking care of one another in new and unexpected ways. Neighbours checking in on one another, coworkers picking up each other’s groceries, strangers serenading each other from their balconies to remind us that we are not alone.
And perhaps that is the real lesson for us all in this time of difficulty – that in the end, we are a community, from a single source, responsible for each other. If we are going to get through this, it will only be together. We have learned, perhaps more concretely than ever, that we are intertwined, that one of us getting sick means we all get sick, that one of us staying away can save dozens, hundreds of others. Now, more than ever, we are relying on each other to do what is best for us all, to keep our distance, to stay home, to hold the line.
Our ability to do that, our choice to do it despite what it might cost us, that is what true love looks like – that is what it means to love one another fiercely and deeply. That we are willing to give up our community spaces, our places of worship, our weekend trips, and our hockey and for some, unfortunately, even our jobs – it says that we truly have internalized Allah’s message. It means we truly understand what it means to be a jamat, to be an ummah. And that is a beautiful thing in the midst of all this darkness.
This darkness is teaching us, yet again, that we need to be each other’s light. And that is true in a physical sense, but also in more intangible ways. A friend of mine recently remarked that “when sunflowers can’t find the sun, they turn towards each other instead, and if that isn’t an apt metaphor/sign for one’s spiritual journey in this life, I don’t’ know what is. Look for the Light and if you’re lost, seek it in others until you find it together.” While this metaphor might not be exactly accurate scientifically, the sentiment is still relevant, especially now. And so as you reflect on how you can continue to support your community in this time, think not just about groceries and gift cards, phone calls and favours, but also about what it means to help light each other’s path through the despair, what it means to walk together on this journey of life and find meaning and hope in one another. Because, as His Highness the Aga Khan has reminded us:
“just as fear can be infectious, so hope is infectious. When individuals and families and communities, or even nations, come together around new-found hope… that new momentum can be unstoppable. The smile replaces the frown. Conversation replaces silence. Fear of the future is replaced by confidence to respond to its challenges.”
May our hope be infectious, our community be strong, and may we emerge from this period stronger and brighter than ever.