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ISLAM Judaism | Christianity
What does the religion teach about how members of the community should treat one another?

by John Kaltner

It has already been noted that Muhammad’s message challenged and transformed the prevailing notions of group identity and allegiance among the people of Arabia. Prior to the rise of Islam, in the period Muslims refer to as jahiliyyah (“the time of ignorance”), the tribe was the primary source of support and protection for a person. Islam replaced that tribal-centered system with one in which the Muslim community, or ummah, became the group with which people most closely identified themselves. This led to a strong sense of unity among Muslims that continues into the present day. To be a Muslim is to be a member of a worldwide community that creates bonds among all those affiliated with the group.

The foundations of the Islamic ethical system are the Qur’an and the hadith, which provide guidance for social interaction and behavior. Despite the complexity and diversity that exist throughout the Islamic world, Muslims take to heart the Prophet Muhammad’s statement recorded in a hadith that “my community is one community.” They therefore view each other as equals, and this understanding is the basis for how Muslims are to treat one another.

The heart of Muslim morality is summed up in Qur’an 3:110, which describes the ummah in glowing terms. “You are the best community ever brought forth among people. You command what is good, you forbid what is evil, and you worship Allah.” As in all religions, Muslim theologians and philosophers throughout history have debated long and hard over the details regarding how members of their faith should behave toward one another. Countless treatises and books have been written that address every aspect of Islamic ethics. In the final analysis, however, it all boils down to the Qur’an passage cited above—Muslims are to do good and refrain from evil. In their day-to-day encounters and interactions with one another, all actions should be guided by that principle.

The communal focus of Islam can be seen in some of the things we have already considered, especially Muslim efforts to assist the poor and needy. The fact that almsgiving is one of the five pillars of the faith that are required of all Muslims is a clear indication that obligations to others are taken seriously. The food that is given to the poor during the two great feasts of the year so that they can celebrate with the rest of the community conveys the same message. These and many similar good works Muslims perform suggest that there is a strong sense of compassion within Islam and that Muslims care deeply for each other.

As essential as membership in the worldwide ummah is to Islamic identity, it is primarily in the local arena that one’s commitment to fellow Muslims is lived out and expressed. No other context is more important in this regard than the family, which is the primary social institution in Islam. In many Islamic societies family life follows a more or less traditional model in which the husband has the primary economic responsibility and the wife has authority over domestic matters. The Qur’an (17:23) advises children to treat their parents kindly, especially when they attain old age, and parents are expected to provide for and care for their children.

The term “family” often has a very different connotation for Muslims than it does for non-Muslims, especially those living in the West. In many Islamic countries, members of the extended family—comprising grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—are a very significant and visible part of a person’s life. This means there is a complex web of relationships that must be cultivated and negotiated on a regular, often daily, basis. It is within this context that Islam is lived out, and within it children are first exposed to the morality and ethics of their religion.

Islamic law has played a key role in the development of guidelines for Muslim social interaction. Within the first few centuries of the Muslim era, four main schools of Sunni law were established, in addition to the legal system of Shi`a Islam. These schools are found throughout the world, and Muslims are free to consult authorities within any of them for rulings and legal advice. The four schools all appeal to the same four sources to formulate law: the Qur’an, hadith, consensus, and analogy. While they are usually not profound, differences exist among the schools due to the varying ways they make use of the sources.

Islamic law, or shari`ah, is the law of the land in only a small number of Muslim countries in the present day. In most places, it is used only to decide family-related matters like marriage, divorce, and inheritance. This means that certain punishments mentioned in the Qur’an, like the amputation of one’s hand for stealing or the stoning of adulterers, are rarely enforced. Even though most Muslims do not live in a society that is strictly governed by Islam, the ethos and morality that emerge from the Qur’an and other Islamic sources exert a great deal of influence over how they conduct their lives and relate to one another.

Copyright ©2006 John Kaltner

John Kaltner is a member of the Department of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee where he teaches courses in Bible, Islam, and Arabic. Among his books are Islam: What Non-Muslims Should Know (2003); Inquiring of Joseph: Getting to Know a Biblical Character through the Qu’ran (2003); Ishmael Instructs Isaac: An Introduction to the Qur’an for Bible Readers (Collegeville: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 1999).

Excerpts from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for purchase in December 2006.


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