The current plight of the Rohingya refugees adrift at sea is painful to watch. Even more painful as a Muslim is the fact that three Muslim countries have refused them entry and assistance, instead choosing to cast them into the elements or at best giving some temporary reprieve. This to me points out a crisis that is apparent. A crisis not only in Islam but also in faith and religion generally (if you consider that the Rohingyas are fleeing Myanmar, a country that professes to be Buddhist). This crisis is the ‘Crisis of Spirituality’.
As I see it, the Rohingya refugee crisis highlights the moral and spiritual bankruptcy that has emerged as we have become so fixated upon ritualistic practice that we have forgotten that the constant effort that we undertake to ‘practice’ our faith is a means to purify, to control and liberate our hearts. In the end it is supposed to be a reconciliation with the deepest level of our being, a realization of the very essence of our creation. As Muslims we consider this to be the Fitra, the essence of who we are that the Creator breathed into our heart. It is our All Spark. It is our humanity. Yet this realization carries with it the face of humility, the awareness of fragility, the consciousness of limitation and the shoulder of responsibility. The responsibility to become a force of being and doing, rather than to undergo despotic relentlessness of a life reduced to mere instinct. Within this space, we marry the purpose of our existence with the purpose of our subsistence. That purpose fulfills the covenant that was made with the One: to stand by justice and equity; to show humility and compassion towards the downtrodden and distressed regardless of who they are; to be witnesses against the injustices that afflict them, because humanity has the right to have witnesses living among them, willing to defend the truth; willing to serve them, no matter how unpopular it is.
It is in that sense that one should approach the plight of the Rohingyas. Classified as one of the world’s most oppressed people, the basic fact that their humanity and their right to exist is being threatened recognizes a right to respond to help them. Let alone that they are fleeing oppression and are refugees adrift at sea.
The treatment of refugees from an Islamic perspective goes back to the very foundations of the Islamic society. The concept of migration or hijrah is central within the teachings of Islam and its history and is known by every Muslim. There is the case of the Muslims who fled to Abyssinia to be granted asylum by the Christian King there, the Negus. This very act means that Abyssinia has a special place in the history and hearts of the Muslims. The main story of the hijrah though is the case of the Prophet Muhammed (Peace Be Upon Him) and the Muslims who fled persecution in Mecca and sought refuge in Medina in 662 AD.
This hijrah, or migration, came to symbolize the movement of Muslims from lands of oppression to those of Islam. Moreover, the hospitable treatment of Muhammad by the people of Medina embodies the Islamic model of refugee protection contained in the Qur’an. Thus individuals not only have the right both to seek and to be granted asylum in any Muslim state; it is the duty of Muslims to accept and protect refugees for as long as they seek protection.
The Qur’an speaks explicitly about the issue of asylum seekers and refugees: “He that flees his homeland in the way of God, shall find numerous places of refuge in the land and abundant resources” (4:100). It provides a set of instructions in dealing with refugees and migrants, praising those who go to the assistance of people in distress and requiring the faithful to protect refugees [9:100 and 117]. It recognizes the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons, entitling them to certain rights and to humane treatment [8:72-75, 16:41].
Yet despite this rich tradition, refugee assistance and protection has been largely absent from the academic and political discourse from some of the Muslim countries in the region of Myanmar. Instead, more ‘practical’ (largely economic) reasons have been provided. This to me highlights a bankruptcy in our thinking and feeling about faith and spirituality. If we are unable to ally our spiritual heritage – that provides humanity with the capacity for personal and social transformation – with the practicality of the situation, then there is a crisis.
The Rohingya refugees have opened a door to another realm of possibilities (and rewards) which one is unable to peer beyond. The crisis has highlighted that with so much intent on rituals, rules and traditions, we have forgotten what the principles, the spirit and the framework for faith has become. We have suffered the transformation of traditional religions and belief systems allowing them to become mundane and ritualistic. By failing to understand the possibilities of the unknown based on something with a higher purpose, we denigrate the very basis of our faith and our journey as human beings.
In this journey we are reminded that God’s favor lies with acts of kindness and humility to everyone around you, as narrated by the Prophet (Peace be upon him) of the story about the ‘thirsty dog which was on the brink of death, and of the passing lady who witnessed this, removed her shoe and used it to draw water from a well to give to the animal. For this small act, the woman was granted forgiveness for her lifetime’. This, ultimately, is the true spirit of spirituality and one that we need to rediscover. As Pierre de Chardin said:
“In the depth of human multitude, there slumbers an immense spiritual power, which will manifest itself only when we have learnt how to break through the dividing walls of our egoism, and raise ourselves to an entirely new perspective, so that habitually and in a practical fashion we fix our gaze on universal realities,”
Photo courtesy of Malaysian Stylo (Flikr Creative Commons)