Originally published in January 2013.
Those familiar with the biography of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) are versant with the story of a young man named Arqam. Arqam played an instrumental role in the unfolding of the history of the Arabian Peninsula. Despite his key role in history, he is noted in the books of Prophetic biography to be a discreet person in Meccan society. In contemporary Western terms Arqam functioned as a:
- self-less philanthropist furthering the cause of a brotherly society
- non-profit organization working for the betterment of society
Upon a close read of the biography of the Prophet ﷺ we learn that Arqam’s role in history was more than non-profits and philanthropists. Arqam’s decision functioned as an institution devoid of bureaucracy in impact and its effect was so profound that it moved the direction of history. The educational space in Arqam’s home communicated a qualitative education so profound and thorough that it affected personal, intellectual and historical change. It was so transformative an experience that the whole of the Arabian Peninsula was reshaped. A disruption of the old psychological order was brought about by transforming the attitude, thinking, and practices of the students of the Qur’an.
One of the fundamental verses that promoted such a transformation based on a wholesome understanding of community life was revealed in Madina and is found in the Chapter of the Qur’an entitled Ma’ida. It reads as follows:
“And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression. And fear Allah ; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.” (5:2)
Imam al-Qurtubi al-Maliki, commenting on this verse, said: “It is a command for all the creation to assist one another in (taqwa) righteousness and (birr) piety, which means they must help one another.”
Imam al-Mawardi ash-Shafi said: “Allah (exalted is He) has called on people to help one another and married cooperation to righteousness and piety.” He further stated that“in righteousness there is Allah’s pleasure and in piety is the pleasure of the people and he who has gained Allah’s pleasure and that of people is happy and fully blessed.”
Imam Ibn Atiya al-Maliki said: “Piety is engaging that which is obligated and recommended of action whereas righteousness is restricted to performing obligations.”
The term piety in the sense found in the Qur’an, in this verse, transcends the basic command to righteousness or God-consciousness. This is so because piety enjoins doing more than what is commanded of goodness and staying away from what is ugly and prohibited (haram) – this is God-consciousness (taqwa). Rather, the commitment to piety is more than just personal spiritual development as it unfolds in doing what is obligated and staying away from the prohibited; it demands doing acts of goodness which are not obligated. Piety (birr) adds great value to society because it carries the human being to a standard of excellence that is not a matter of keeping to the do’s and don’ts of Islam. God-consciousness is a fundamental level of spiritual maturity, but piety is a call to grow beyond the basics of fearing for one’s well being and desiring what is best. For this reason the commitment to piety has a social component
The group studying at the home of Arqam did not secretly meet to plan a violent overthrow of the system, nor did they study a manifesto that would teach them a program to enshrine their newly founded party. The environment in this period of Islamic history was very hostile to women, the weak, the stranger, and the poor. The strong man governed and the sword was always near. It was far from the state of nature that honored the human being and far from the rule of law—rather, it was the law of barbarism and ignorance celebrated through poetry and occasional hospitality. Despite this social fact and environmental challenge the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ did not falter. It was in the abode of Arqam that the early Muslims found a safe house to imbibe the teachings of the Qur’an and the character necessary to transform society from the core. If it was power they were after, they had a chance to march into Mecca and conquer it after they achieved independence in Madina. If it was wealth they aimed at, they had the ability to plunder to their delight. What they were after was a life worth living.
Rather what they learned at Arqam’s home was an institution of education that taught that the poor, the rich, the stranger, the woman and the non-Muslim all had inherent rights that are God-given and that faith and reason are not to fall prey to superstition. The Arqam effect was so profound in impact that individuals who graduated from the institution were later key individuals who served to construct the society of Madina. Madina, as many of us know, was the first State in the world to be founded on a constitution. They became corner stones to society and its major benefactors. The lesson of the Qur’an they imbibed was that to build society is an obligation and to uphold justice and law is crucial to society’s survival. The education they received was a Qur’anic education and, further, a human education.
Fetullah Gulen states: “A system of education without a clearly defined target and purpose will only serve to confuse future generations. We have to be careful that our youth is taught the proper material in an effective manner to ensure that they are actually learning rather than simply becoming conduits of data.”1 Arqam, as a youth, learned more than just the fundamentals for a successful career. He learned how to be a functional part of society, how to care for society, and how to build society.
Lessons on citizenship are not enough to bring about a just social life. An understanding of Islam bent on attaining power to wield it like a sword will not bring about a just social order. A life devoted to spiritual practices and neglect of the material world is not enough to bring about a change in the madness of the world. A booming economic upturn is also not enough.
What is needed is a transformation of perspective, a cultivation of will, a suppression of ego, and a deep commitment to the teachings of the Qur’an. The students of the school of Arqam eventually moved on to graduate. When they graduated, they renewed society, for it was through the patient suffering in Mecca and the studious effort to understand the Qur’an. While the world was in chaos, they eventually developed the qualities necessary to build Madinan society and then return to build Mecca. Study of the Qur’an must be accompanied by a spirit searching for solutions for humanity’s spiritual and intellectual ailments as well as its social ills. Change is not only personal, but it is in light of social transformation. What do we need to change in ourselves to make society better? That question is the question we must ask when we read the Qur’an.