Inspiration From The Koran: Command Good and Forbid Evil
- Bakri Musa
[Presented at the South Valley Islamic Community Iftar, Morgan Hill, California, Sunday, June 12, 2016.]
Ramadan is the month of the Koran. Its first few verses were revealed to Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) during this month. Thus it is a tradition for Muslims to recite the Koran communally during this time.
A few years ago I was in a panel discussion where one of the panelists asked a group of students to think of the Koran from a different perspective. He challenged them to cite the one ayat (verse) in the Holy Book that meant the most to them, and why.
It was remarkable that no two individuals quoted the same verse. Each gave compelling arguments and heartfelt reasons for their choice. That reflected the vast richness of the Koran as a source of inspiration to Muslims.
For example, one student related his visit to the Grand Canyon, enraptured by its breathtaking sights. It recalled for him the Koranic verse on the beauty and grandeur of Allah’s creation. He was referring to Surah Al Ra’d, “He it is Who spread out the earth and placed therein firm mountains and streams ….” (13:3)
That verse transformed for him what was a popular tourist destination to one filled with reverence. Indeed to Native Americans, the Grand Canyon is holy.
Before that, the verse affected him no differently than those other six thousand ones in the Koran. Through the spectacular sights and overwhelming silence of the Grand Canyon he felt the presence of Allah, manifested by that particular creation in all its infinite beauty and mystery.
Another recalled his first day in a New York City classroom. He was astounded that his fellow classmates came from literally all corners of the earth, spoke strange languages, wore bewildering colors and style of clothing, and ate exotic foods that they had brought from home. The cacophony of attires, faces and voices intimidated him.
Then he remembered the eloquent verse in the Koran which said, approximately translated, that Allah could have created mankind as clones of each other (Surah Al Maidah 5:48, among others). Instead He created us in our different tribes, cultures, languages, preferences, and yes, skin color so we could learn from each other. Then we would not only appreciate our differences but also embrace them, thereby enriching our lives. That was Allah’s grand design that he saw in his class that day.
The most touching was the inspiration of a student who was a recent refugee. She described her harrowing journey to escape the chaos and tyranny of her native land, of staying ahead of killer agents of the state, and of crossing treacherous seas.
Throughout it all what kept her sane and determined was Allah’s command, expressed in Surah Al Nisa, “. . . Was not God’s earth vast enough that you might have migrated therein? . . . ” (4:97) She was also inspired by the Prophet’s own hijra, of being driven away from his birthplace.
Three individuals from different parts of the world with totally different experiences and emotions, yet all drawing their inspirations and words of comfort from the Koran.
That simple exercise had me thinking. Which ayat in the Koran meant the most to me and why? That prompted me to re-read the Koran in a different light. My Arabic is rudimentary and the Koran is in classical Arabic. Even if I were to be fluent in Arabic I would no more understand the Koran than a native English speaker would the subtleties of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I would need guidance.
We are blessed today to have many excellent translations of and commentaries on the Koran.
My inspirational ayat is not a full one but a phrase incorporated in a handful of ayats. Amr bil Ma’ruf wa Nahy an al Munkar
( ?????? ?? ??? ? ???????? ??? )
Simply and briefly but too far off translated as “Command good, forbid evil!”
Amr means to make it a practice or let it be your norm, a part of you; ma’ruf, fair, just, right, decent or honorable; nahi, to distance yourself; and mungkar, bad, foul, evil, wrong, unjust, indecent, or dishonorable.
To me that phrase is the essence of the Koran, its thesis sentence if you will. I draw the greatest inspiration from that phrase, its words to live by. That phrase also encapsulates for me the meaning of being a Muslim. It is Islam’s Golden Rule.
Chronologically it first appeared in the Meccan Surah Luqman (31:17) relating the advice Prophet Luqman gave his son, “O my son! Perform the prayer, enjoin right and forbid wrong, and bear patiently whatever may befall you!”
In the Koran that phrase first appeared in Surah Al’Imran (3:104): “Let there be among you a community calling to the good, enjoining the right, and forbidding wrong. It is they who shall prosper.”
Relating this to the experience of the first student, knowing the Grand Canyon to be Allah’s creation, he would do much good by respecting it, as in not not polluting or defacing it. He would certainly do great harm if he were to bulldoze its majestic columns and imposing ridges, or through careless acts of littering and carving of graffiti.
As for the second student, seeing human diversity as Allah’s grand design, he would do good by embracing it. He would certainly do great harm if he were to insist that others dress like him or share his belief.
The third student best lived the command to do no evil. When evil is all around it is difficult to be on the straight path. We cannot always prevent evil or when in so doing we would endanger ourselves, but we can always distance ourselves from it, as she did by emigrating.
An oft quoted hadith has it that when we see evil being perpetrated we should use our hands to prevent it, meaning, physically. If unable to do so or if in so doing we put ourselves in harm’s way, then we must voice our disapproval. Where even that could lead us to danger, as in Malaysia with its notorious Internal Security Act, then we should disapprove it in our hearts, though that is the least favored by Allah.
How does the injunction “Command good and forbid evil” relate to the five pillars of our faith?
There is nothing intrinsically good in the act of declaring the shahada, professing our faith in God and Prophet Muhammad as His Last Messenger. It is good only if in so doing we were to be reminded of His message and to follow it. The same could be said of praying.
Shahada and prayers are but professions of intent. Unless translated into deeds, they would be nothing more than vibrations of our vocal cords, only slightly better than a recording being re-played.
I remember an incident a few decades ago when Imam Anwar, the father of our present Imam Ilyas, was giving a sermon. There were kids running around interfering with his delivery. Imam Anwar quietly tucked away his prepared sermon and shifted to an impromptu lecture on mosque etiquette.
It was good that kids came to mosques, he said, but they must learn the proper behavior. They were never too young to start learning. If they were to run around and disturb others praying, then their parents should interrupt their prayer to control their kids. That would do more good to more people than for their parents to continue praying while ignoring their misbehaving children.
I just saw a video going viral of a woman collapsing while doing her Taraweeh prayer in a Malaysian mosque. It was caught on its closed-circuit camera. Not one of her fellow congregants stopped their prayer to help! They continued on as if nothing had happened. Eventually a lady from the rear rushed to help her. The Imam too was oblivious of the raucous back in the women’s section; he continued on.
Once as a surgeon in Malaysia, I reprimanded a junior doctor for abandoning his patient in the emergency room while he was off for his Friday prayer. To that doctor, his personal salvation came ahead of his patient’s safety.
In a similar fashion, what were they thinking when they yelled “Allah hu Akhbar” (God is Great!) and then slit their victim’s throat or go on rampages? Those actions mock our great faith!
As for fasting, the only intrinsic good to the act is the reduced caloric intake that would be good to our health and longevity. If during Ramadan we were to go further and reflect on the Koran and translate its messages into deeds, then we would be on to something good beyond ourselves.
As for Hajj, its inherent good is akin to a tourist contributing to the travel industry, with jobs and economic activities created therefrom. If in performing it you pollute the holy city, elbowed your way to the Kaaba, and on returning you are back to your old wily ways, then you mock the sanctity of your pilgrimage; likewise if you were to finance your Hajj with illicit funds.
The one pillar of our faith whose execution is intrinsically good is zakat, the giving of tithe. The goodness of the act is obvious to its recipients; less obvious are the many benefits to society. The Koran says that tithe purifies your wealth. Stagnant wealth, like water, is unhealthy. Economists talk of keeping money circulating, and measure the vigor of an economy by how fast money exchanges hands, its velocity. Enlightened policymakers advocate guaranteed minimum income for the same reason. Zakat does both; that is its inherent virtue.
I am blessed that as a physician I could execute this Koranic injunction in the most personal way to serve my fellow humans. The same could be said of teachers and nurses.
There is yet another reason for my choosing that ayat. When I translate it into my native Malay, it parallels the exquisite brevity of the original Arabic, in addition to its unabashed assertiveness and arresting alliteration: Biasakan yang baik, jauhi yang jahat. Make good your norm and distance yourself from evil.
That remains my challenge as well as guidance.