By Masumeh A. Farchtchi
“Thus We have appointed you a middle nation.”
(Qur’an, Surah Baqarah, 2:143)
Islam teaches balance in thought and action. Although some practitioners may go to extremes[i], the religion itself does not condone any form of extremism or fanaticism. In fact, finding the middle path is a general principle of behavior in Islam. The Qur’an and Sunnah contain specific guidelines steering people away from extremes in particular cognitive, social, and behavioral areas. Furthermore, Islam endorses sociopolitical and socioeconomic systems that represent a balanced, middle ground.
Moderateness as a General Principle in Islam
As a general principle, Islam teaches its followers that any given issue has polar extremes to which devils calls people according to their individual weaknesses. For example, if a person tends to be harsh, Satan will use this to seduce him into committing tyranny. On the other hand, if a person tends to be sensitive, Satan will use this to plague him with excessive worries and sadness. Therefore, Muslims must search for and adhere to the middle ground in every issue in order to avoid the snares and deceptions of the accursed devils. This general principle helps guide Muslims away from extreme mannerisms and behaviors.
PART 1: The Individual
Specific Guidelines for Individual Behavior & Thought
Beyond the general principle of moderateness preached by Islam, Muslims find guidance in specific cognitive, social, and behavioral issues. The Qur’an and statements of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) contain straightforward prohibitions reproaching extremism in many contexts. The position promoted by Islam always represents the middle path. Here are just a few examples of these guidelines.
In religious practices, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) pronounced a firm warning, “Never be extreme regarding religion. Many nations have been destroyed before you only because of extremism in religion,” (Nisaai; Ibn Majah). This includes matters of worship. The Prophet (peace be upon him) loved worship and referred to prayer as the apple of his eye, an ascension for the believer, a comfort in times of worry or distress, a meeting with the Almighty, and other praises and encouragements. Yet he warned his followers not to go to extremes in worship. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was known to perform long, supererogatory night prayers. However, when a Muslim declared that he would never sleep and instead pray all night, the Prophet (peace be upon him) reproached him[ii]. Likewise, the Prophet (peace be upon him) would offer supererogatory fasts. But when he discovered that one of his companions, Abdullah ibn Amr al-Aws, fasted every day, he forbade him from doing so and limited his fasts to a maximum of alternative days[iii].
Islam prohibits the two extremes of sexuality: celibacy and “free love”. There are no monasteries in Islam. It was narrated, “Uthman ibn Mazun decided to live in celibacy, but God’s Messenger (peace be upon him) forbade him to do so.”[iv] The opposite extreme, sexual looseness and animalism, is likewise prohibited. Fornication and adultery garner dire punishment. But marriage, the middle ground, is a sensible and right place for expression of human sexuality according to Islam.
Other specific examples of moderate preaching in Islam include issues of character and personality. A person should avoid extreme strictness or extreme laxity, bearing to the middle ground of flexibility. It is outside of Islamic character to fanatically pursue minor details, obsessing over nonsensical matters or repeating actions “just to make sure” they were done. This is said to be a kind of “was-wasah” in Arabic, literally whispers from devils to distract the person from matters of higher importance in life. A person who experiences these compulsive drives is advised to seek refuge in God’s protection, repulse these intrusive thoughts, and ignore instead of act upon them. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a lackadaisical person is encouraged to seek refuge in God from his laziness, push himself toward self-discipline, and seek ways to become less forgetful and apathetic. Both obsessiveness and indolence are viewed as traps to divert the worshipper from what is truly valuable in his or her life.
Likewise harshness versus sensitivity must be balanced at the middle path. To be cruel with others or oneself is generally prohibited in Islam. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “Shall I inform you who the people of the Fire are? They are all those violent, arrogant, and stubborn people.”[v] However, being over-sensitive is also discouraged. God reproaches His Prophet, Muhammad, saying, “Perhaps you will kill yourself with grief, sorrowing after them, if they do not believe in this Statement (i.e. the Qur’an).”[vi] Both the austere person and the gentle soul must check themselves from harmful extremes.
Islamic texts encourage the Muslim to be cheerful and optimistic, but not so jubilant and carefree that they become superficial or thrill-seeking and unconcerned with serious matters in life. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “When you speak to your brother (in faith), show him a cheerful face.”[vii] The Prophet himself exemplified a cheerful disposition. He was optimistic and cheerful despite personal adversity. For example, although his wife overheard him muttering, “Surely, there is agony in dying,”[viii] describing the pangs of the illness which took his life, an onlooker who saw him praying with the general congregation described him saying, “His face was (glittering) like a page of the Qur’an, and he was smiling and cheerful…On that same day, he died.”[ix]
When dealing with others, Islamic manners disallow both aggressiveness and passivity. Instead of aggression, Islam endorses various alternatives such as patience, tolerance, dialogue, and withdrawing oneself from harmful company.
For example, the Qur’an does not exonerate the apostasy of those who die in a state of rejection due to social pressure, indicating that they should have migrated, saying, “Lo! As for those whom the angels take (in death) while they wrong themselves, (the angels) will ask: ‘In what were ye engaged?’ They will say: ‘We were oppressed and weak in the land.’ (The angels) will say: ‘Was not God’s earth spacious enough that ye could have migrated therein?’”[x] Instead of passivity, Islam permits—and in some cases prescribes—self-defense. The decision to act defensively, however, is relative and depends on the greater wisdom. For example, verbal self-defense during argumentation is permitted but not preferable, as indicated in the verse, “God loveth not the utterance of harsh speech save by one who hath been wronged. God is ever Hearer, Knower.”[xi] The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) provided further clarification about verbal argumentation, saying that the person who knows he is right but avoids argumentation by silence is rewarded by God. A person should not fight simply to have the last word. He also taught that patience without vengeance wins support from God and His angels.[xii] In other instances, however, assertive pro-action is the appropriate manner, such as in the case of protesting a serious evil or thwarting a pattern of recurrent harm.
In terms of emotional commitments, Prophet Muhammad warned against loving or hating to any extreme. He explained, “Do not love your friend excessively; he may one day become your enemy. Do not hate your enemy excessively; he may one day become your friend.”[xiii] Islam also asks its followers to set proper priorities in love and affection, placing love for God above all else, and thereafter placing affectionate companionship to one’s mother (the vessel of creation) as a lifelong duty and high priority. Honoring one’s mother is a strong Islamic ethic, which shows one’s thankfulness for life. In modern times and societies, wherein peer groups dominate young adult life and social time, Islamic reminders tying the person to his or her family bonds are well-appreciated by parents. Prioritizing parental bonds makes good sense to balance the person’s thought and social behavior because one’s parents have their best interest and mature develop in mind while friends merely want to have fun.
Islamic texts encourage the Muslim to be a good team player and recognize the value of social networking. Ideally, a Muslim man or woman is someone willing and able to focus on a group goal and work together as a group to meet mutual aims. The Muslim is also instructed to care about and strive to preserve family ties, recognizing one’s rights and responsibilities according to a role as mother, daughter, wife, father, son, husband, etc. There is also encouragement to look beyond the home, into the community, and even around the globe.
The Muslim is intimately tied to his family, community, and society. However, Islam also requires the Muslim to form individual convictions and the ability to resist peer pressure and group effect in order to preserve one’s personal values. So the Muslim is both able to get along easily with others and able to stand independently. Overall, Islamic teachings mold the individual into a well-rounded and positive personality, not self-centered, egotistical, or reclusive nor overly dependent on others.
In physical appearance, Islam instructs Muslims to strike a culturally appropriate balance between the polar extremes of showing-off and shabbiness. The principle of moderate physical appearances applies to clothing, transport, and housing.
A Muslim should dress and present himself or herself respectably, according to his or her means and culture. A person should not strive to appear wealthy beyond his or her means, or to flaunt his or her wealthy status over others. Conceit is a character assassin, which ruins spirituality. God said, in a Hadith Qudsi[xiv], “Pride is My cloak and majesty is My garment; and I shall throw whosoever vies with Me regarding one of them into Hell.”[xv] The Prophet (peace be upon him) warned, “Whoever wears a garment of fame and vanity, God will cloak him in a garment of humiliation on the Day of Judgment.”[xvi] Neither should he or she be slovenly or unconcerned with appearances, however. When approaching a city during travels, the Prophet (peace be upon him) told his travel companions to fix their clothing and riding animals, and to, “Be respectable[xvii] among the people.”[xviii] Good personal hygiene[xix] and self-beautification are considered a part of Islamic manners and daily life.
One factor which drives people into excessive purchasing is competition. Muslims are encouraged to be reasonable in the manner by which they spend their wealth. That is a type of integrity in financial dealings. One should not buy the newest gadgets, cars, home furnishings, etc. simply in a race to keep up with others. Competitiveness in material status is a spiritual distraction, according to Islam. The Qur’an says, “Rivalry in worldly increase distracts you, until you come to the graves. Nay, but you will come to know…Then on that day[xx], you will be asked about the pleasures you indulged in.”[xxi] The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said that, on the day of judgment, no foot will move from its place until the person has been asked about five matters, included among them, “His wealth: how he earned it and how he spent it.”[xxii]
In housing, furnishing, and dining, Islam generally prohibits excessive luxury and showing-off. Islamic jurisprudence forbids excessively luxurious household items such as gold-plated silverware; such decor is wasteful and inconsiderate of the plight of the needy in one’s community. When appointing Mu’adh ibn Jabal governor, the Prophet (peace be upon him) told him, “Abstain from luxuries, for those who live luxurious lives are no servants of God.”[xxiii] At the same time, it is virtuous to make one’s home comfortable and clean. The Qur’an says, “God loves those who repent, and He loves those who have a care for cleanliness.”[xxiv] And Prophet Muhammad related, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.”[xxv] The Prophet (peace be upon him) listed a spacious dwelling among the comforts of a happy life[xxvi].
6-Wealth and Financial Management
In personal financial affairs, a Muslim is reminded in the Qur’an to be generous but not spendthrift. God says, “Give the kinsman his due, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and squander not (thy wealth) in wantonness. Lo! The squanderers were ever brothers of the devils, and the devil was ever an ingrate to his Lord,”[xxvii] and He continues, “And let not thy hand be chained to thy neck, nor open it with a complete opening lest thou sit down rebuked, denuded.”[xxviii] “Hand” is figurative here, meaning generosity. “Chained to thy neck” means stinginess; and its opposite extreme “open with a complete opening” means being overly generous to the point that one does not have any means to take care of his or her own responsibilities. Between the two extremes is a middle path, and that is the path of the Muslim. In another verse, the Qur’an describes believers in God, saying, “And those who, when they spend, are neither prodigal nor grudging; and there is ever a firm station between the two.”[xxix]
PART 2: The Society
Moderateness on the Community Level
The general principles, philosophies, and systems promoted by the Qur’an and Sunnah are even-minded and moderate. Here are some guidelines through which Islam calls society to the middle way.
International political relations, according to Islamic principles, should be equitable and diplomatic, neither aggressive nor passive or vulnerable. In line with this ethic, Islam encourages military readiness but forbids transgression, oppression, and initiation of violence. The Qur’an says, “Let not the disbelievers think they can get the better (of the godly); they will never frustrate (them). Make ready for them all you can of (armed) force, and of horses tethered, that you may intimidate the enemy of God and your enemy, and others beside them whom you do not know.”[xxx] Directly following this directive to prepare militarily, the Qur’an encourages peacefulness and treaty-making, saying, “And if they incline toward peace, incline thou also to it, and trust in God. Lo! God is the Hearer, the Knower. And if they deceive thee, then lo! God is sufficient for thee. He it is Who supporteth thee with His help and with the believers.”[xxxi] Muslims are not meant to be warmongers; they should support peace, even when they suspect that offers of truce are false. On the other hand, Muslim states should not appear downtrodden and defenseless so that enemies ravage them. Muslim statesmen must carefully consider both the protection and interests of their nation and the rights and humanity of their enemies.
In governance, Islam promotes a single head of state, or Calipha, whose power is balanced and checked by a Shura[xxxii] system of council-centered decision making. Caliphite and Shura is a fair balance, neither tilting too far toward democratic rule of ignorant masses nor its opposite pole of totalitarian rule of one. Additionally, in an ideal Muslim society—that is, a society founded upon and operating according to the principles laid out in the Qur’an and Sunnah—every citizen has a voice and individual rights are staunchly guarded by law. Any individual may complain to the state or offer his or her reprimand on political failures of the rulers (i.e. to give Naseeha). Every person, Muslim or Non-Muslim, has a right to protection of personal safety and property. However, this individualism is balanced by the interests of the society at large and a firm disallowance of factionalism or military rebellion against the state. Thereby, Islam promotes neither cast nor communist systems; neither individualism nor communalism; neither political disengagement nor political anarchy and upheaval.
3-Culture, Religion and Ethnicity
Culturally too, Islam stands on the middle ground. The Qur’an says, “O mankind! We have created you from male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the best in conduct. Lo! God is Knower, Aware.”[xxxiii] In this verse, the Qur’an recognizes both cultural differences and racial equality of mankind. In fact, God presents our racial diversity as one of His signs, saying, “And of His sings is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the difference of your languages and colors. Lo! Herein are portents for men of understanding.”[xxxiv] Islam rejects racism, arrogance, racial segregation, racial separatism, racial supremacism, racial genocide, racial intolerance, and social cast systems. However, Islam acknowledges differences between cultural groups, without seeking to whitewash humanity into a single culture. The Qur’an acknowledges and accepts religious differences between groups, stating, “To you your religion, and to me my religion,”[xxxv] as well as the verse, “For each We have appointed a law and a way. Had God willed He could have made you one community, but that He may try you in what He gave you (He hath not done so). So vie one with another in good works. Unto God will you all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein you differ.”[xxxvi] Islam was revealed to all mankind, yet this universalism and global equality does not strip groups of their diverse cultural identities[xxxvii].
Economically, Islam is neither purely capitalist nor collectivist. Unlike collectivist economic systems, Islam recognizes the right of individual ownership. However, individual ownership is balanced by the rights of the poor, via the Zakah system. God says, referring to the believers, “And those in whose wealth there is an acknowledged right for the beggar and the destitute.”[xxxviii] Wealth is viewed as a trust from God, according to Islam, and the possessor is obligated to give a fixed portion in charity[xxxix]. Furthermore, Islam forbids economic elitism, the circulation of wealth only among the rich. The Qur’an says, “That it [i.e. wealth] not become a commodity between the rich among you.”[xl]
In this article, we have focused on behavioral principles—on both the individual and societal level. Our presentation of specific examples in this article is by no means an exhaustive list. Additionally, Islamic scholars traditionally point out that Islam is also a middle path in its creedal system. Islam is neither anthropomorphic nor nihilistic, neither pantheist nor atheist. In terms of its views on human nature, Islam sees man as neither godlike and flawless nor devilish and doomed. Rather, Islam preaches that man is born on a pure nature but with free will to choose good or evil. He is liable to make mistakes due to weakness, inconsistency, and a high propensity to be influenced by external forces, but man is also blessed with faculties which aid him/her in an elevated spiritual potential. As one can plainly see, Islam is truly a middle path in all aspects of its tenets, philosophies, and behavioral instructions.
Subhaka Goduma wa behamdik. Ash’hadu an-laa ilaha illa Annt. Astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk.
Glory to You, O God, and praise to You. I testify that there is no God but You. I seek Your forgiveness and I repent unto You.
[i] At various times and in various places, widespread ignorance of the religion of Islam has set the stage for extremism to flourish. Indeed the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prophesized about some of them, foretelling their mischief and corruption and warning against them. Unfortunately, several such groups exist today, and their poor modeling of Islamic practices reflects badly on Muslim and on Islam. However, the religion itself did not cause or support extremist movements, and those groups and individuals require correction and education in their religious understanding.
[xl] (Qur’an, Surah Hashr, 50:7)