By Zahid Aziz
A profound way in which Islam has dignified the individual is by making him or her responsible for his or her own beliefs and actions. The Qur’an says:
No bearer of a burden can bear the burden of another. (Al-An`am 6:164)
Each individual bears his or her own responsibility and is treated by God as a person in his or her own right. The individual is not treated as just one member of a group, with no identity of his own. Even if you belong to a group or nation whose members are committing wrong, you are not held responsible for their misdeeds if as an individual you do not commit those wrongful acts.
Likewise, if you are a wrong-doer you cannot escape responsibility for your actions by claiming to belong to a group of good and righteous people, and no one, however good and holy, can volunteer to bear your responsibility upon his shoulders. This principle means that each one of us matters as an individual.
Blind following of leaders is also condemned in the Qur’an. It says that if a wrong-doer puts forward in his defense the plea that he was only following and obeying orders, that is not an acceptable defense. Although the leaders do bear responsibility for misleading their followers, nonetheless each individual is expected to use his own sense and reason, to the extent of his capacity.
Similarly, blind following of one’s ancestors and of inherited beliefs and values is condemned by the Qur’an. It teaches that you should apply sense and reason to test whether your inherited beliefs are right or not. Again, these teachings of the Qur’an dignify the position of the individual because he is told not to blindly follow his leaders or forefathers.
Another principle the Qur’an teaches is that an individual must not join in acts of wrong-doing with his community or his fellow-countrymen or brethren-in-faith. It says:
Help one another in righteousness and goodness, and help not one another in sin and aggression. (Al-Ma’idah 5:2)
It is not befitting a human being that he should just follow the crowd, even the crowd of his own people, without thinking about the right or the wrong of the matter. Rather, the individual should stand up for the right, even against his own people.
Principle of Consultation
In making decisions in the nation or the community, the Qur’an has taught the principle of consultation. It says that the affairs of the Muslims must be decided by consul among themselves.
Those who hearken to their Lord, and establish regular Prayer; who (conduct) their affairs by mutual Consultation… (Ash-Shura 42:38)
Even the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was instructed to consult his followers, “so pass over (their faults), and ask for (Allah’s) forgiveness for them; and consult them in the affairs.” (Aal `Imran 3:159), and he was given this revelation when a decision about a battle which had been made on the basis of majority opinion had proved to be wrong.
The Prophet and some of his followers had been in favour of one course of action but the majority had been in favour of another course of action. The majority view was followed but it nearly led to disaster. Nonetheless Allah revealed to the Prophet to pardon his followers, and still consult them in decision-making as before.
The process of consultation dignifies the individual because each person has his or her view taken into account, while autocratic rule degrades the individual because one man’s opinion is supreme.
Value of the Least Individual
I will mention now two incidents recorded in the Qur’an which show the value attached to the most ordinary individual. In the early days of his mission, Prophet Muhammad was once explaining Islam to some chiefs of his tribe when a blind man came to him and interrupted him with a question. The Prophet frowned and turned away from him, as he was addressing important men. God then sent revelation to the Prophet, which is contained in the eightieth chapter of the Qur’an, expressing disapproval and telling him that may be it would be the blind man who would have benefitted from his teaching.
The revelation told him that those chiefs whom the Prophet was addressing did not even consider that they had any need to follow Islam, but the blind man had made the effort to come to him and was God-fearing. The blind man, according to the revelation, was more deserving of the Holy Prophet’s attention than the assembly of the chiefs of the tribe of Quraish. This shows how much an individual, even the most insignificant individual, is valued.
The other incident is of a woman who complained to the Prophet that her husband, following an Arab custom known as zihar, had broken off all relations with her but still she was not free to leave him. According to that custom, a man would place his wife in a state where she lost her position as wife but was not divorced from him either.
The woman pleaded with the Prophet to do something, but he was reluctant to interfere without a revelation. God then revealed to the Prophet, saying that He had heard the plea of the woman, and that He condemned husbands who indulged in that custom and prescribed a punishment of community service for any man maltreating his wife in that way.
Allah has heard the saying of her that disputes with you (Muhammad) concerning her husband, and complains unto Allah. And Allah hears your colloquy. Lo! Allah is Hearer, Knower. (Al-Mujadilah 58:1)
The complaint of an ordinary woman was heard by God Himself and He sent revelation in her favour to His Prophet.