How does one define their role and value in society, or one’s purpose in life? Are we atomised beings moving through life in a random fashion or connected and “born of a single soul,” as the Qur’an informs us? How are we connected, and what is an individual without a community?

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent,” wrote poet John Donne in the 16th century. We have been accustomed to being independent, believing ourselves to control our own destinies. Today, we face a cruel reminder of just how truly interdependent we are, marooned in our island homes, able only to view the mainland of humanity at a distance.  

Unable to experience the comfort of our own community spaces, we are finding solidarity with others, including strangers, and offering help to those in need. Saadi’s 11th-century words predate Donne’s, and have been oft-quoted by Hazar Imam in the context of pluralism. 

       “The children of Adam, created of the self-same clay, are members of one body.  

        When one member suffers, all members suffer, likewise. O Thou, who art

        indifferent to the suffering of the fellow, thou art unworthy to be called a man.”

These words were also quoted by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah in his Presidential Address on the Adjournment of the 18th session of the League of Nations in Geneva in 1937. He went on to say, “The tribulations of one people are the tribulations of all. That which weakens one weakens all. That which is a gain to one is surely a gain to all. This is no empty ideal…”

Living in a society that encourages self-awareness, self-expression, and self-promotion, one's identity can be inward-focused; yet, for Muslims, the community is paramount and the primary determinant of one's identity, even if these bonds are weaker in communities in the west. With Ramadan approaching, this year there will be an added impetus to seek help from the Almighty and to help those in need.

In his “The Age of Paradox,” author Charles Handy described the individual’s need for a sense of connection: "We are not meant to stand alone. We need to belong — to something or someone.” The closing of our Jamatkhanas has reinforced, not weakened, our sense of identity. We may be secluded but we are not isolated and alone, as volunteers, families, and friends from the Jamat call to ensure we are safe. 

We recognise the absence of communal prayer and social interactions in these spaces, that are more than just places for individual solace and comfort. They shape us, teach us, and represent us, as a collection of individuals, bound together in a community of faith. They encourage us to think in terms of “us,” instead of “I,” and offer opportunities to relate to others in meaningful ways. We can truly appreciate the value of community by seeing our neighbours, many of whom are alone, often without family or others to turn to or rely upon at this time.

The decline in physical social interaction has accelerated in the last few decades, as smaller nuclear families have replaced extended ones, distances have separated many, and lives have become busier with less leisure time to connect with others. People have needed to become more self-reliant, out of necessity. 

The loss of community spirit and engagement with and concern for others is a topic commented on by Hazar Imam, in his 2006 address at Columbia University. He asked, “How can we inspire people to reach beyond rampant materialism, self-indulgent individualism, and unprincipled relativism?” He also mentioned the “false glories of romantic nationalism and narrow tribalism, and the false dawn of runaway individualism.”

The individual has now been dwarfed by the need to appreciate community, in our effort to fight this disease. Solidarity in the face of this crisis, and the realisation that we are not independent but interdependent, and united against this threat, is a marked difference from recent cultural attitudes. Cooperation has become better accepted than in the past few decades where ethnocentrism, nationalism, and chauvinism have been on the rise. 

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see,” said the French artist, Edgar Degas. Many of us have seen paintings, read history, or seen films illustrating calamities that have afflicted humanity through the ages. They are useful in allowing us to see anew how they arose, the actions and inactions that resulted, and to remember that pestilences ended with personal protection, sensible policies, and community cooperation. 

This virus is infectious. But “[…] just as fear is infectious, so hope is infectious,” Mawlana Hazar Imam has said, indicating that all crises do pass. What will accelerate the recovery is a united and concerted global effort, one that may also lead to greater realisation that we are part of a single community, inseparable from others, sharing the same pain... and fate. 

So, while we follow precautions and patiently endure this health crisis, in our solitude we reflect upon what is important in our lives, reach out, connect, help others, appreciate those close to us, and recognise that we are all part of a community that cares. Each of us can do our part to make the body whole once again.