It appears from a certain point of view, that we might be involved in a type of conflict that will not really be resolved through military might, nor violence. And if that is true, it might mean that so long as we are dependent upon militarism and violence as our only tools, or our tools of choice as we seek to construct a 21st century model of cross cultural cooperation, we might be destined for disappointment. We might need to identify new tools, adopt new ways of thinking and conduct our affairs differently. This perhaps sounds very naéve, and not suited for a more sophisticated or experienced crowd of intellectuals and the elite whom I respect and admire immensely. And that may be the beauty of it. When you think about it, the poor, the middle class and the minorities who fight our wars, deserve that we, the average people, do and say more on behalf of peace, not leaving it only to others. A self governing people, or any people for that matter, seem to have a responsibility to work peacefully, for what we need most in the world, and that, at least for now, seems to be cooperation. The sought after changes we seek might not be as drastic as loving thy enemy. It might be as simple as loving ourselves enough to recognize that in every attempt to destroy the enemy we destroy something good in ourselves. It seems that we loose in war, even if it’s just our belief that we might be able to achieve peace without destroying our perceived or real enemies, as we do in wars.
Unfortunately we find ourselves in an era where everything not violent is made to appear as though it is weak, or stupid, or naéve. That’s not new. Throughout history those who have suggested that anything other than brute force is of any practical value have been treated as idiots, or patronized as well intended fools. Yet, history has proven that even with all of the wars and fighting and conflict, we, the human race have yet to accomplish peace. We have been able to arrange periods of low intensity conflict, and we have been somewhat successful at advancing certain ideas and ways of thinking, while eliminating, or at least minimizing the impact of undesirable ways of thinking and ideas, but we have never achieved peace. That leads us of course to a discussion of peace. Who is qualified to define peace for so diverse a world of people?
In one part of the world, peace might just be an end to bombings and hunger, and living under siege. To another group of people it might be an end to fear that causes them to act belligerently and then to perpetuate cycles of violence through provocation and attacks. To another group of people it might be an end to poverty and corruption. Relief from having to make choices such as whether or not to steal 50.00 worth of food per day, or to work and earn enough to purchase 10.00 worth of food per day for a large family might also be a form of peace for someone. It might be different for a man or a woman who is praying for relief from loneliness or spousal abuse, or answers for a child who wonders why they were born? Or it may just be an option other than death for an elderly person contemplating euthanasia because life doesn’t seem worth living anymore. Peace can be many things, but war can only be one thing, even if it leads to other things. This might cause us to ask if there is not some other way to survive, and achieve sufficiency and some of our desires. Maybe competition does not have to be resolved through destruction. Perhaps what we are seeking through competition is actually found in cooperation, since through cooperation we can successfully compete as a species with what is really threatening our survival, and that is fear and lack of knowledge, natural phenomenon, limited resources, our weaknesses, and wrong thinking.
Imagine if the perception of competition and human survival could be changed to a perception that says that collectively the human race is in a battle for survival not with one another, but against bacteria and diseases, droughts, famines, land erosion, pollution, poverty, drug and other addictions and excesses, criminal behavior, illiteracy, depression, stress, etc. etc. What’s comforting about this perception of man’s struggle for survival is that it highlights the fact that our enemies are not literally people. Which might cause us to consider that this is why killing people and destroying property and things, and torture and other ways that we hurt and damage one another in our pursuit of power have achieved very little. The great advances, scientific, technological, social, intellectual and ecological has not been achieved except in peace. The scientists, who studied, read and researched tested and proved their theories enjoyed peace from the maddening threat of extinction, achieved victory upon his or her battlefield, which is the laboratory, in silence. They were undisturbed, accept the rumbling in the mind that takes place as light and darkness fight the real battle, which is a battle of knowledge and power, against fear of loss and death. The Apostle James taught this in the Bible. In James 3:17-18, he said, ” the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace, and of them that make peace.” Both the Bible and the Qur’an in the story of Joseph teach us that what is threatening us are natural phenomenon that we have been charged to “subdue” and bring under our dominion. Look, James said, “Behold we put bits in the horses mouths, that they may obey us, and we turn their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven by fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, wherever its governor directs it (3:3-4). In 3:7, he wrote,” for every kind of beasts, and birds, and serpents, and things in the sea is tamed, and hath been tamed by mankind ” (3:3-4). And he said in 5:17, ” the prophet Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the earth brought forth her fruit.” The Epistle of James is a powerful discussion of human relations and cooperation as a precursor to our fulfillment and completion as individuals and as a species.
In the story of Joseph, we find the greatest testament to the power of cross cultural and inter-faith understanding and cooperation. The Prophet Joseph’s story is a treatise against class arrogance and racial and religious prejudice, and pride, not simply because theses attitudes are wrong, not based upon facts. But also because they lead to violence, impede the progress of mankind, prevent cooperation and divide and separate people and prevent them from benefiting from one another as God intended. Joseph’s story begins with a dream that Joseph had, where he said he saw the sun and the moon and eleven stars prostrate themselves before him. His father told him to keep his dream secret, since if he told his dream to his brothers, they might become envious of him and do him harm. His father perhaps knew that these brothers, like most people, believe that they are embroiled in a competition with human beings for survival, and honor and prestige, and so would seek to limit Joseph, or eliminate him due to their misperception, which is quite common, even today. Perhaps we sometimes envy one another, and seek to destroy one another because we wrongly believe that we are in competition with one another. Joseph’s brothers, even without knowing his dream, first plotted to eliminate him, and then resolved themselves to simply throwing him down into a well. The objective is to remove him from the group of competitors for the father’s affections, and perhaps inheritance. Joseph was imprisoned in the story at his own request, since he feared that his own desires would cause him to fall into the snare of the women of the court who found him attractive. The King of Egypt sent for Joseph, who was a slave, and a foreigner, and poor, and imprisoned in Egypt, having been accused of trying to seduce his master’s wife. Why did the King call upon Joseph? Joseph had been explaining dreams and teaching the other prisoners about God, and God’s mercy and forgiveness. He taught them about God’s love for the rich and the poor, and the sinner and the righteous man and woman. Hearing Joseph’s reputation as an interpreter of dreams, the King sent for him to ask for his explanation of several troubling dreams that he had. If not for the cooperation and collaboration between these two men, Joseph and the King, men of different religions, races, and socio-economic backgrounds, knowledge and experience, Egypt and its surrounding villages would have been ruined by an approaching famine.
The Qur’an says, ” Verily in the story of Joseph and his brethren are signs for seekers after truth.” According to the Qur’an the King of Egypt said,” O Joseph, Oh man of truth, expound to us the dream of seven fat cows whom seven lean ones devour, and of seven green ears of corn and seven others withered, that I may return to the people and that they may understand.” Joseph explained the dream and warned the King of a famine, and asked, ” Set me over the storehouses of the land, I will indeed guard them as one that knows their importance.” The King did appoint Joseph to oversee the reaping, storage and distribution of rations before and during the famine. The famine eventually ended, as Joseph foretold, and was followed by a period of bounty and abundance, perhaps a reward for the victory of these two men over the natural phenomenon that threatened their mutual existence, and the survival of their peoples. Their first victory was of course over the racial and religious prejudices that might have prevented them from cooperating in the first place. At the end of the Qur’anic rendition of the story, Joseph is reunited with his family, who bow down to him, since he is now a Minister in the court of Egypt. Joseph says, ” Oh my father this is the fulfillment of my dream of old. God has made it come true!” Some commentators believe that this fulfillment was the bowing down of his family before him when they joined him in the court of Egypt. Others believe that it was the bowing down of sun, moon and stars that was fulfillment of the dream, symbolizing Joseph’s dominion over them, and congratulations to Joseph for his victory. This because it was actually the configuration of sun, moon and stars that had caused the drought and subsequent famine, and that later brought rain and abundance as a reward from God for Joseph’s mastery and management of the test. Three important lessons might be learned from this story 1). That man might not be in competition with man for survival.2). That mankind’s domination of the created things is achieved through cooperation.3). This cooperation is the sought after peace that leads to the progress and prosperity we all desire.
It does not require belief in God or faith in the prophets to understand such stories, and their aim. God says in the Holy Books that he is not in need of mankind’s belief, or faith, but we are in need of Him. It is possible that the stories of the Holy books are simply stories, and God inspired them. Some believe they are merely the imaginations of men who pondered the complexities and challenges of their time, which somehow are very similar to our own. It may also be that they are true-life experiences of exemplary men and women, who like our contemporary heroes inspire us with their strength, faith, wisdom and abilities to overcome challenges. Whichever of these one chooses to believe, it is of small consequence if we accept that truths can be found behind many and different doors. All of the Holy Books teach that God’s love and mercy is such that it reaches the greatest of us and the smallest of us, and the good and the bad alike. When it rains it rains on the crops of the good and the evil alike, and when there is hardship and war, we all suffer, making it important that we find ways to cooperate rather than compete for survival, and to have peace rather than war.
The writer is the Founder and President of the National Association of Muslim American Women.