So I have this friend in prison with whom I dialogue regularly about our respective faiths (he has discovered Islam while in prison). Every so often, he guest blogs for me. Since we continue to contend that Islam and Christianity can teach each other anything and shed light on each other’s beliefs, here is his take on the idea of community.

The question that initiated this line of thought was whether or not we (by “we” I mean the Muslims here at Indiana State Prison) are a “community” in the way it is defined along Islamic terms and is this definition harmonious to the general understanding of community (and what is the general understanding of community). And depending on the answer to that question, what is our responsibility to either maintain or achieve community.

Community is defined as:
1. People in area: a group of people who live in the same area, or the area in which they live
2. People with common background: a group of people with a common background or with shared interests within society
3. Nations with common history: a group of nations with a common history or common economic or political interests

So depending on the context that it’s used, one could say that community is basically a group of people that either live in the same locale or have similar backgrounds/concerns. I would also say that this is the general understanding that people of the concept of community.

As such, when we talk about the black community, for example, what does that mean? We don’t all live in the same are, we don’t all have common backgrounds, or share the same interest. I guess you could argue that we do have a common history and that we are all darker than white people, but does this really define community?

My problem with this is that community should mean more than that. If we limit ourselves to the above understanding, then we are no more than a collection of individuals that are sharing space. There is no sense of … I don’t know … concern/love.

Islam defines community as a brotherhood (which obviously has a richer connotation – goodwill, a feeling, fellowship, and sympathy for other people). And it is along these lines that Islam defines community. Allah says, “Verily, this brotherhood of yours is a single brotherhood, and I am your Lord and Cherisher; therefore serve ME and no other,” and “The believers are but a single brotherhood: so make peace and reconciliation between your two contending brothers; and fear Allah that you may receive mercy.” (23:52 and 49:10).

The idea that is being put forth is that the believers are bonded together, unified by their faith in Allah and that as a result of this there is a responsibility to one another. Actually a love for one another. Allah says, “And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.” (3:103)

I don’t want to get preachy here. Suffice to say that the idea is that through our common faith, we are bonded together. We are commanded to love one another. This love is not necessarily the kind of love that you have for a wife or a child. In fact, you might not even particularly like a fellow brother. It is the kind of love, I suppose, is best exemplified amongst members of the armed forces. During my tenure as a Marin, there were plenty of guys I didn’t particularly care for, but the bottom line was that they were Marines. As such, I would always extend that man the respect and courtesy that he was due, I would assist him in whatever he need assistance with, I would put my life on the line to protect him.

That same love is called for in Islam in terms of our relations with one another. Allah tells us to hold on to the Rope, all together. The idea is that we are stronger together than we are individually. You have heard the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Kind of the same idea here, that collectively we support one another in the areas we are weak. That collectively, there is a measure of accountability that is not present individually.

Then, of course, we have a model of community. We have the historical accounts of how the Prophet (saw) and the early Muslims lived. And what we see, in short, is a body in which the individual sacrificed for the greater good of community, a structure of mutual respect and assistance, and (very important) a very real practice of accountability. This is the best example of what a community is.

Okay, with this on the table, how does this stack up to how or what we generally apply the term community too. Looking at, for example, the Islamic Communities out in the world. What we see, in general, is Muslims falling into what I call the contemporary Christian paradigm (you really need fancy titles for something simple, I could have just said the way Christians do stuff these days).

Here’s what I’m talking about. Let’s go back, oh, 100 years ago in this country. What we will see is a particular standard of morality. This standard, obviously, had a Christian foundation. More importantly, this standard was being not only espoused from the pulpit, but there was an expectation of adherence by the general populace. If one would act counter to this societal standard, then there were repercussions. For the sake of time and space, I’m being really general, and there are exceptions but I think you get the gist of what I’m saying.

We fast forward to 2007, and there is still a standard of living being propagated from the pulpit, however, there is no accountability to the message. A message is preached on Sunday and then the people are dispersed back to their individual lives – which is all good and well for Christians (ha!). The problem, as I see it, this is also true of the Muslim communities. This is counter to the very spirit that is embodied in what community means, or should mean, to the Muslim. Nevertheless, brothers go to the mosque on Friday, but then is seen coming out of the liquor store on Saturday, turning up a 40 oz and what? Nothing. That’s a problem.

So, to answer my own original question, do we have a community here? I would say yes we do. We certainly have the commonality of faith. We express a degree of love that is expected of Muslims for one another. And, just as importantly, we have a degree of accountability and expectation of one another.

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