In Surah al-Ma'ida, Allah says:
… whoever saves the life of a single person, it is as if he has saved the life of all of humanity.1
In this verse of the Qur'an, the connectedness between all human beings is impressed upon Muslims, denoting that service to one person is accepted as service to the whole of humankind. What is it that binds us together in this way, across lines of nation, race, and creed? Contemplating on the messages of the Qur'an, which have been explained by the Prophet Muhammad (salla'l-lahu alayhi wa-aal-hi wa-sallam) and our Imams, can provide us with some direction.
From the time of the Prophet until today, the value of oneness has remained central in Islam. Our faith tradition calls on us to help one another, live as brothers and sisters, and engage ethically with those we encounter. But how do we truly enact this value of unity? When we see someone else suffering, do we feel hurt? If we do feel for others, are our actions aligned with the sentiment? If we cannot act, do we find alternative ways to support those who are suffering, even if just through a kind word or a smile? While one way to respond to these questions is by analyzing our thoughts and actions, another is to focus on the metaphysical aspects of our relationship with each other. In the Qur'an, Allah describes our connection in Surah al-Nisa:
O mankind! Reverence your Lord, Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate, and from the two has spread abroad a multitude of men and women.2
This notion of creation stemming from a single soul guides us to understand our relationships as spiritual, divinely ordained, and intimately permeated with the presence of the Divine. In hadith qudsi, Prophet Muhammad reveals the nature of this intimate connection:
Allah will say, ‘O son of Adam, I asked you for food and you fed Me not.’ He shall say, ‘O my Lord, how could I feed You and You are the Lord of the Worlds?’ And Allah will say, ‘Did you not know that My servant so-and-so was in need of food and you did not feed him? Did you not know that if you had fed him, you would have found that to have been for Me?'3
This hadith qudsi suggests that our care, compassion, and service towards humanity is not merely an act of benevolence; rather, in serving Allah’s creation, we are, in fact, serving Allah. Our relationship with each other is inextricably entangled in our relationship with the Divine, also known as the Rabb-‘abd relationship, where Rabb is the 'Lord' and ‘abd is the 'one who serves.'4
What responsibility do we have towards our Rabb and, in turn, towards each other? In Surah al-Balad, the title of khalifa, vicegerent, bestowed upon human beings carries with it a very clear responsibility:
Did We not give him two eyes,
a tongue and two lips,
and show him the two paths?
But he did not take the steep path.
And what will explain to you what the steep path is?
[It is] freeing a slave;
or feeding on a day of hunger
an orphaned relative
or a poor person in need.
Then he is one of those who believe and encourage patience
But what if we never come across a slave or an orphan as referred to in Surah al-Balad? What if the life referred to in Surah al-Ma'ida is never in our hands to save? What if we don't always feel pain when we see someone hurt, or—on a more uncomfortable note—what if we are the cause of someone's pain? Do we sit back and wait for an opportunity to make a swooping heroic action so that we can 'save someone's life' then declare that we have responded to God's call from Surah al-Ma'ida? If we carefully consider the guidance from hadith qudsi, we will see that it is not spectacular acts of heroism that have a salient role in 'saving' humanity. Instead, perhaps, it is a collection of small acts of kindness, which Allah emphasizes in Surah al-Ma'un:
So woe unto the praying who are heedless of their prayers, those who strive to be seen, yet refuse small kindnesses.6
What small acts of kindness can we offer to our counterparts in creation? Sharing career or business advice with someone, giving someone a ride to Jamatkhana, or caring for an ill or elderly loved one. These actions, while deemed 'small', are paramount in keeping our humanity afloat. This is not easy; these acts may require hard work, discomfort, consistent effort, and even personal sacrifices. But if we truly want to take heed of the call to recognize and act on our innate connection, we need to lean into the discomfort.
As we reflect on our responsibility as khalifas, we may, at times, feel compressed by the weight of this title. However, let us remind ourselves of the plethora of ways in which we can answer this call.
1(Surah al-Ma'ida, 5:32); Translation from: Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2010, Secondary Curriculum: Ethical Pathways to Human Development: One World Many Hopes, Student Reader. London: Islamic Publications Limited, p. 32.
2(Surah al-Nisa, 4:1) The Study Quran.
3Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2017, Secondary Curriculum: Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, Volume 2, Student Reader. London: Islamic Publications Limited, p. 137.
4Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2015, Secondary Curriculum: Faith and Practice in Islamic Traditions, Volume 1, Student Reader. London: Islamic Publications Limited, p. 104.
5(Surah al-Balad, 90:8-17); Translation from: Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2017, Secondary Curriculum: The Qur'an and its Interpretations, Volume 1, Student Reader. London: Islamic Publications Limited, p. 42.
6(Surah al-Ma'un, 107:4-7) The Study Quran.