Imam Dr. A. Rashied Omar
In this Nasiha I would like to offer some modest advice as to how we as conscientious Muslims and responsible South African citizens should be responding to the harrowing and traumatic events that took place during the month of July 2021. I offer three modest suggestions.
Reverence and Sanctity of Human Life is Supreme
First and foremost, we mourn and grieve the tragic loss of over 330 of our compatriots. While we lament and bemoan the estimated loss to the national economy of close to 50 billion South African rand as a result of the torching of critical infrastructure and trucks, and the looting of malls and shops as well as the concomitant loss of livelihoods for many people, the loss of life is far more lamentable. In light of the colossal number of deaths and bereavement which the Covid-19 pandemic has wrought on almost every family, if anyone is still not convinced that the sanctity and sacredness of human life is more valuable than anything else then they have learnt nothing from the trauma and loss resulting from the pandemic.
One of the abiding lessons that we should learn from the Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic is that our reverence for and preservation of human life known in Islamic parlance as (hifz al-hayat) should supercede everything else. Such a viewpoint is unequivocally supported by the most primary sources of Islamic guidance. The Glorious Qur’an is replete with references concerning the sacredness of human life. In Surah al-An`am chapter 6: verse 151; Surah al-Isra’ chapter 17: verse 33; Surah al-Furqan chapter 25: verse 68. The most striking of these Qur’anic proclamations that underscores the supreme sacredness of human life is the famous verse 32 of surah al-Ma’idah, chapter 5, in which God, (the Giver and Taker of Life) equates the unjust killing of one human being to that of killing of all of humankind and the saving of one human being’s life to that of the saving of all humankind.
Enunciated in the above Qur’anic verse is a critical ethico-moral lesson for all of us: the sanctity and preservation of life (hifz al-hayat) is far more precious in the teachings of Islam than anything else. Hence, looking back at the violence and mayhem that unfolded in Kwazulu Natal, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga let us never forget the lives needlessly lost through this anarchy.
Holding Government Accountable
This leads me to my second suggestion. In light of the tragic loss of human lives and the immense damage to our country’s economy resulting from the violence and looting, as responsible South African citizens we should hold President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government accountable firstly, to establish the circumstances that led to the death of each one of the 337 human beings who lost their lives.
Secondly, if there is credible evidence of incitement to violence to destabilise the state, then instigators should be arrested and charged. Thirdly, we should hold government to account to do more to address the persistent poverty and inequality that provides fertile ground for desperate people to resort to lawlessness.
From Charity to Solidarity
My third and final point I would like to share is that notwithstanding the gloomy picture which predominated during the first half of the month July, during the second half of this month we were grateful to witness how many conscientious South African citizens took it upon themselves to clean up the debris and mess and to dispense much needed relief efforts to the affected communities.With respect to the latter, we particularly commend the many organizations, including the Gift of the Givers and other relief agencies for their sterling charitable contributions to alleviate the plight and suffering of those most affected by the violence and the looting.
Arising from my observation of discussions within the Muslim community concerning the praiseworthy philanthropy and charitable contributions by Muslims in South Africa, I offer the following reflections. While Muslim charitable contributions are exemplary and laudable, it is my considered view that in order to address the deep seated poverty, socio-economic inequities and the resultant structural violence suffered by many people in our country it should be transformed to resonate more fully with the broader ethico-moral teachings of Islam. What is needed is for Muslims to deepen our understanding and praxis of zakah (obligatory alms) and sadaqa (voluntary charity) such that it also addresses and transforms the existing culture of covetousness, self-entitlement and greed, to that of selflessness, altruism and compassion. In order to achieve this goal, we need to collectively work towards exposing and mitigating the devastating consequences of the neo-liberal and capitalist economic policies being pursued by our African National Congress (ANC) led government. But it is not only ANC politicians and members who bear responsibility for the current state of affairs in our country. Big business, captains of industry and indeed some Muslim owned businesses are also complicit in perpetuating a capitalist economic system that thrives on and maintains economic inequalities, and spawns a culture of greed, materialism and avariciousness. We will only be able to root out all forms of corruption, including that of state capture, if we work to combat corruption at the systemic level, which is endemic to neo-liberal capitalist economic policies.
Two further points are critical in our understanding of the philosophy and purposes of philanthropy and charity in Islam. The first is that a Muslim employer should not underpay and exploit workers and then try to appease his/her conscience by giving charity. There are many Islamic teachings that exhort us with regard to paying our workers a living wage. For example, in a prophetic tradition (hadith) narrated by the companion Abu Dharr (may God be pleased with him) the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) exhorted benevolent and just treatment of workers under your care in the following manner:
Your employees are your brothers and they are entrusted to you by God. So whosoever has a brother employee under his management, let him feed him/her as he eats and clothe them with the like of what he wears. Do not give them work that will overburden them and if you give them such task then provide them assistance.” (Sahih al-Bukhari)
The above hadith teaches us that an employer should consider their employees as members of their own family. For instance, in the case of setting working hours, employers are advised not to coerce employees to work beyond their capacities and if the workload is “excessive” then they are told to share the burden.
Second, when a Muslim gives charity either in the form of the obligatory alms known as zakah or voluntary alms known as sadaqa, they do not do so expecting a reward or gratitude from the recipient. Recipients should never feel beholden to the charity giver. Neither do Muslims do philanthropy with ulterior motives to convert others to Islam or to co-opt them to their ways of thinking or to seek glory for themselves. Muslims give charity in gratitude and thanksgiving to God and in order purify themselves from avarice and greed, to humanize themselves and seek closeness to God. Such a view is unequivocally advocated in verses 8 & 9 of surah al-Dahr, chapter 76 of the Glorious Qur’an where Allah, the Changer of Hearts, proclaims:
Feed the Poor, the Orphans and the Indigent purely for the Love of God, and (Proclaim) “We feed you only for the Sake of God, desiring neither Reward nor Thanks”
Last but not least, the best form of sadaqa is accompanying one’s monetary contributions by also giving of yourself i.e. your empathy, time and talents. This is what we at CMRM have dubbed moving from charity to solidarity. The difference between charity and solidarity is usefully captured in the following quote by a CMRM congregant, Gabeba Gaidien:
“The powerful ability to empathize is the difference between service delivery and serving humanity. The former is an act of charity and the latter an act of solidarity. Human solidarity is the only way to truly shape a safe and just society.”
By accompanying one’s monetary contributions by spending quality time with poorer and marginalized communities provides us with different opportunities to contribute positively to the lives of fellow South African citizens living in impoverished areas. More significantly, through humanitarian and solidarity efforts, it opens up the potential for Muslims to contribute towards breaking down the stubborn racial and class divides between communities in our fractured society. Our physical presence and support sends a message to recipients that their lives matter, that we see them, we hear them, we feel for them.
This is a critical lesson that emerged from the debates in the aftermath of the July violence and looting. Some Muslim businessmen felt aggrieved that despite their generous acts of philanthropy and charity, the same recipient communities turned against them in a moment of madness and looted and destroyed their businesses. While one fully understands the sense of loss and frustration, this does not mean that Muslims should stop doing what is right. Rather, as Muslims we should confront this painful reality as a test from Allah, and to try to do some deep introspection to find creative ways of being even more altruistic by giving not only of our wealth but also of ourselves in the cause of the poor and marginalized.
We thank God, that as this month of July comes to an end the looting and violence has abated.
However, as a nation we need to do some serious introspection as to the complex causes that led to the catastrophe that some have called an attempted insurrection that beset our country during this past month of July. We need to convene many more dialogues to share our perspectives and most of all to embrace a call to action to exorcise our country from its many demons.