A Community of Worth: The Dire Need for a Social Ethic of Merit Among Us

A Community of Worth: The Dire Need for a Social Ethic of Merit Among Us

OUR NOTIONS ABOUT an ideal Muslim community are as divergent as the doctrinal expressions of Islam prevalent in the world. Some Muslims wish a return to the glorified past, the founding era of the Prophet and his Companions. Decrying the use of technological innovations and scientific advancements, they wish to replicate the nascent Muslim community of Madinah down to the straw mats and wooden utensils. They say that religious commitment alone can bring the change so desired in the Muslim Ummah.

But when asked about the strategies to overcome the contemporary challenges faced by their respective local communities, they are unable to articulate a comprehensive reform plan. Instead, their answer is a simplistic affirmation, like a mantra, that faith will solve all problems.

Other Muslims, enamored by the “success” of the West, advocate an entirely progressive reform agenda with no regard for hindsight. Closing their eyes to a rich Muslim history, they promote blind imitation of the West.

Most Muslims have adopted a stance that ranges between these two peripheries. Anyone who has visited Muslim communities around the world, especially here in the West, has seen for him- or herself the great disparity among Muslims in terms of the types of communities they have established.

Yet there is a common element often present among our communities: A lack of focus on the essential principles upon which the Prophet established the nascent Muslim community. The basic beliefs of tawheed (Oneness of God), ukhoowah (brotherhood), shura (consultation), ‘adl (justice), sadaqa (charitable giving), jihad (striving), and sabr (patience) — by which I mean specifically perseverance against acquisitiveness and in times of trial and conflict — formed the bedrock of the young Muslim community in Madinah. Firm grounding in these ideals allowed the pioneering believers, though stressed and besieged, to overcome obstacles that still seem truly insurmountable.

Our Muslim communities today seem to have grave misunderstandings among their members about these basic principles. It is not uncommon for Muslims within the same community to have serious disagreements over the concepts of tawheed or ‘adl, for example, or other basic principles. If we have acute divergence in such basic matters in Islam, then how can we establish a community that adheres to these principles?

I would like to focus on one such standard that formed the practical foundation of the developing Muslim community in Madinah and its absence in today’s Muslim communities (for it seems to me a primary contributing factor to the decline of the Muslim Ummah in general): Meritocracy, a social system wherein people are recognized or rewarded based upon their demonstrated knowledge, talent, and ability, rather than because of their wealth, family connections, class privilege, friends, seniority, or popularity.

The concept of meritocracy is familiar to most of us through our educational institutions. In this setting, we expect commendations and grades to be awarded based on demonstrated ability and talent. Societies that practice meritocracy enjoy prosperity and generally witness an improvement of quality in all spheres of life.

The best example in our era remains the United States of America, both for its historical rise and its recent decline. The principle of meritocracy forms one of the foundations of American society that is fast crumbling. In writing the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson drew upon British philosopher John Locke’s argument that society is naturally stratified, but not by inheritance. Rather it ought to be layered on the basis of merit.

Jefferson and Locke were speaking to a time when property, wealth, pursuit of happiness, and liberty were not considered common birthrights. Inheritance was given preference over merit. No matter how talented, skilled, and knowledgeable an individual was, it was not recognized nor rewarded if they did not have the proper pedigree. The notion of merit, which eventually won out over lineage in the West (at least for a time), is the very principle that is still taught in the schools of this country to every child in the simple statement: “Anyone can become the President of the United States. Even you!” Though the principle of meritocracy practiced in the United States is sullied by deep-rooted prejudices among its people, and is now seriously jeopardized by insular and privileged special interests, it serves as a strong force that continues to inspire the fight to eradicate these prejudices and undo privileges over time.

But just as the West was donning the mantle of meritocracy, the Muslim world threw it off. In many predominantly Muslim countries you have to have what is popularly called “wasta” (connection) in order to achieve anything in society, including securing a good job. It is extremely difficult in our traditionally Muslim lands for an individual to advance on the basis of personal merit. You need family connections, tribal affiliations, and so forth to move up the socio-economic ladder.

This concept of wasta privileges the “haves” over the “have-nots,” ensuring generational poverty for many Muslims. Those who do not have any wasta are deprived of equal opportunity to pursue happiness—the right of every human being, and one upheld by Muslim scholars as the proper Shari‘ah goal of a Muslim’s earthly existence.

Yet it is not uncommon in Muslim countries to find cases where qualified people are passed over for the less competent for jobs or promotions because the former did not have “wasta.” In a wasta system, advancement in society is sought and granted through personal connections rather than by self-improvement. Therefore, the society as a whole does not develop because the mindset of the individual is not one of using the opportunity for self-betterment or human service, but for short-term personal and family aggrandizement.

Moreover, a society that relies on wasta to move ahead becomes unaccustomed to universal decision-making criteria and is unable to implement the policy of applying objective standards to individual performance. Thus, many Muslim communities appear, and are, in fact, uncommitted to values which favor competence.

As the economies of Muslim countries continue to decline and competition for meager resources increases, the wasta system has eroded society even further. Benefactors that used to help family and friends for reasons of social prestige are now doing so seeking monetary rewards. Bribery has become the norm in many Muslim countries leading to corruption at all levels of the society. Transparency International (www.transparen-cy.org), a global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, has been publishing the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) since 1995.The CPI ranks countries in terms of the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians by their countrymen. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, a significant number of nations identified as “most corrupt” in the most recent CPI were Muslim countries.

Even our most hallowed institutions, the masajid, are not immune from the influence of the wasta system or corruption. Rather, we see this as rampant among us in the West. It is not surprising to find masajid that favor a certain ethnicity over others, or for the majority of the people in the Masjid board to be doctors, engineers, and other “rich” people with connections, while the ones that are doing the “dirty work,” cleaning the masjid, leading the tidying-up effort after an event, or serving the food in the lines are the “miskeen,” or those considered to be not properly of the “leadership class.”

We must break away from this disease of privileging the privileged just because of their prestige, money, popularity, or other unearned traits. We must learn to value each other based on individual self-worth and effort.

Competency in Islam

The principle of meritocracy is not alien to Islam and Muslims. It reminds us of the struggle of one man, Muhammad, who stood up in the hostile sands of Arabia and declared “La ilaha ill’Allah!”—who rose up to the injustices of the times, when the only fidelity that was recognized was one’s tribal affiliation. Prophet Muhammad declared the principle of meritocracy outright, utterly leveling any notion of worldly nobility, hinged it instead upon the quality of one’s belief in God alone: “Inna akramakum ‘indal-laahi atqaqum” (Indeed, the noblest of you in the sight of God are the most God-fearing of you)—and this at a time when religious identity was considered an inherited right, rather than the God-given right of every individual.

Prophet Muhammad taught us to respect everyone, and to judge and recognize each other based on one’s individual worth and merit. He taught us to recognize people for their efforts rather than by their lineage, ethnicity, or race. He took people like Bilal, an African slave, and Khabbab, another slave, who were the downtrodden of Makkah and made them the leaders of a nation because of their sincerity, hard work, and human contributions.

Most of us know the famous hadith of the Prophet as narrated to us by Abu Hurayrah in Bukhari and Muslim in which he inquired:

O Bilal! Tell me what good deed you have done in Islam, such that I heard the sound of your footsteps in Paradise? Bilal answered: “After I purify myself during the day or night, I pray with that purification as much as Allah has destined for me.”

The Prophet used to elevate the ranks of people around him by recognizing their actions and deeds. And note the clear connection between Bilal’s private sincerity and the Prophet’s public elevation of him. Indeed, Allah, Himself, raised Bilal’s renown by allowing the Prophet to hear Bilal’s footsteps behind him in his mi‘raj (ascension) to the Heavens, on the Night of Isra’.

The Prophet would assign people to responsibilities and offices based on their aptitude. He sent Mus‘ab ibn ‘Umayr, a 19-year-old, to Madinah as his ambassador, selecting him over senior people like Abu Bakr, Abu ‘Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah, ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan and others of their caliber. He chose Mus‘ab because of his ability to recite the Quran, which proved instrumental in converting the people of Madinah to Islam.

He appointed Bilal as his mu’adhdhin (caller to prayer) because of his beautiful voice. The same Bilal whose face was rubbed in the sands of Makkah would one day climb to the top of the Ka‘bah and proclaim the adhan! Talk about shattering perceptions of who is honored and who is not! What must have gone through the minds of the Quraysh in Makkah as they witnessed their former slave standing atop the most sanctified building in the whole of Arabia, calling the people to salah. How that very action must have given wings to the hopes and dreams of the destitute and downtrodden of Makkah!

The Prophet appointed Usamah ibn Zayd, a dark skinned young man, as the general of the army over his seniors who had contributed much to the cause of Islam. He chose Usamah not just because he loved him but because he also saw in him signs of great leadership. The Companions who had mixed feelings about his appointment because of Usamah’s tender age would later realize the great insight of the Prophet when Usamah’s army earned victory after victory and came back to Madinah undertaking one of the most successful military campaigns Muslims would ever witness in the history of Islam.

The Prophet took a person like ‘Abd Shams Al-Dawsi, who used to herd the cattle of his tribe, recognized his intelligence, invested the time to teach him about Islam, and made him into Abu Hurayrah, to whom we owe the knowledge of so many ahadith of the Prophet. One did not have to be a Qurayshi nor an Arab to be recognized by the Prophet. People like Salman Al-Farisi, a Persian, became a close Companion of the Prophet because of his knowledge and his struggle for truth.

Merit as Divine Paradigm

From the very beginning of the Prophet’s mission, Allah directed him to the principle of meritocracy to ensure that the new Muslim community that Prophet Muhammad was embarking on building would be a community based on the individual worth of the person and not on wasta, the principle that was observed during the times of Jahiliyya (ignorance of divine revelation).

The elevation of meritocracy as a standard comes into stark relief in Surat ‘Abasa, in which Allah begins by recounting the incident wherein the Prophet was engaged in an earnest conversation with a Qurayshi noble, hoping to win him over to Islam. In the meantime, ‘Abdullah ibn Um-Maktum, a blind man, in his eagerness to learn more about Islam from the Prophet interrupts him and keeps nudging his elbow for more attention as the Prophet continues his conversation with the Qurayshi noble.

This disturbance persisted until the Prophet frowned at ‘Abdullah ibn um-Maktum and turned away from him to resume his conversation. Immediately, Allah, Most High and Exalted, revealed the verses of Surat ‘Abasa admonishing the Prophet for his behavior and forever sending a message till the end of time that people should be valued not on the basis of the social order they belong to. Rather, they should be esteemed in accordance with their individual worth:

  1. (The Prophet) frowned and turned away,
  2. Because there came to him the blind man (interrupting).
  3. But what could tell thee but that perchance he might grow in spiritual understanding?
  4. Or that he might receive admonition, and the teaching might profit him?
  5. As to one who regards Himself as self-sufficient,
  6. To him dost thou attend;
  7. Though it is no blame to thee if he grows not (in spiritual understanding).
  8. But as to him who came to thee striving earnestly,
  9. And with fear (in his heart),
  10. Of him wast thou unmindful.
  11. By no means (should it be so)! For it is indeed a Message of instruction:
  12. Therefore let whoso will, keep it in remembrance. [Surat ‘Abasa, 80: 1-12)

The Quran clearly articulates the fundamental principle of meritocracy in distinct terms in Surat Al ‘Imran [3:104]:

Let there arise out of you a band of people, who enjoin what is right, and forbid what is wrong. They are the successful ones.

And further in verse 109:

You are the best of peoples evolved for mankind: Enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and believing in Allah.

In order to attain success, a community, according to Allah, Most High and Exalted, has to observe the principles of “amr bil-ma‘roof” (enjoining what is right) and “nahi ‘anil-munkar” (forbidding what is wrong) regardless of whether that wrong is practiced by the affluent or the downtrodden in a society. Encouraging “right” and for-bidding “wrong” is the basic mechanism that underlies a system that is based on individual merit. It not only implies but ensures that people will be judged on their deeds rather than on the basis of their socio-economic status, lineage, ethnicity, and so forth.

The Prophet further emphasized the principle of meritocracy in his famous sermon during the Farewell Pilgrimage by declaring:

All humankind is from Adam. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab. Nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab. Nor does the white have any superiority over the black. Nor does the black have any superiority over the white—except by the fear of God and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every other Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves. Remember one day you will meet Allah and answer for your deeds. So beware! Do not stray from the path of righteousness after I am gone.

The Prophet is here summarizing the most important principles of the message of Islam, and it bears utmost significance that the moral standard of meritocracy is among them.

Abu Bakr, may Allah be pleased with him, continued the legacy established by the Prophet in observing the principle of meritocracy after the passing of the Prophet. In his inaugural address to the Companions, Abu Bakr declared:

I wished to see the strongest of men in my place this day. Now, it is beyond doubt that I have been elected your Amir, although I am not better than you. Help me, if I am in the right. Set me right if I am in the wrong…The weak among you will be strong with me until, Allah-willing, their rights have been vindicated. And the strong among you shall be weak with me until, if the Lord wills, I have taken what is due from them. (Hadrat Abu Bakr Siddique by Masudul Hasan. Islamic Publications Ltd, Lahore, Pakistan)

By asserting that he would support the weak against the strong in the matter of the redress of grievances, Abu Bakr laid down the principle of meritocracy as one of the bedrocks of the Khilafah, the Caliphate.

‘Umar, who came after Abu Bakr, diligently maintained the same policy of supporting the rights of the weak against those of the strong. His scrupulous attitude toward appointing government officials based on taqwa (being God-conscious constantly), competency, and trustworthiness is well known. Like his predecessors, he valued individual worth over everything else.

A Worthy Future

Those who followed the Prophet understood the crucial need for meritocracy in a just society, the need to recognize a human being based on his or her personal merits of moral worth, competency, skills, talents, and the like. They took this principle and built a civilization on it, a civilization that recognized people regardless of their lineage, ethnicity, or race. It was because of this principle that Muslim Spain flourished, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike could hope to have their dreams realized on the merit of their personal endeavors and accomplishments.

The Muslims of before were able to build a nation that was the greatest in the world. Its community was driven by creativity and invention because people could dream freely within its confines with the hope of having their vision and ideas become reality through their personal endeavors.

Muslims recognized others for their talents and would provide them opportunities to realize their gifts regardless of who they were. The Mamluk Sultans of Egypt were, in fact, slave-soldiers who reached the very top of their society and ruled Egypt for almost 300 years. Alas for the Muslim societies of today! They do not value creativity and innovation because a society that does not observe the principle of meritocracy strives to maintain the status quo instead of promoting new ideas, because maintaining the status quo ensures that those who are in power and affluence will continue to remain so.

Dear Muslims, we must understand that every time we give preference to someone just because of their socio-economic status, their relationship to us, their affiliation with this or that group, we ignore someone else who is worthy of our attention and investment who is a more rightful guardian of the public trust and a better leader for our community. By doing this, we have extinguished the creativity and contributions of that person who could have moved our community in a positive direction.

We must break away from this disease of privileging the privileged just because of their prestige, money, popularity, or other unearned traits. We must learn to value each other based on individual self-worth and effort. When we do so, we will encourage people to strive over and beyond their abilities thereby slowly changing the current lowly condition of the Muslims.

The desire to see the Muslim Ummah reclaim the place of honor that it once had burns in the hearts of many Muslims. However, that honor cannot be achieved unless and until we learn to honor each other based on the value of our personal worth. As Muslims, we must learn to see beyond our skin color, height, age, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. We must learn to recognize and reward those who prove themselves through their personal abilities, talents, and skills. When we start doing so, then we will again be able to find our “Bilals,” “Khabbabs”, and “Abu Hurayrahs.”

As Muslims continue to establish communities around the world, we must ask ourselves, what type of community we should strive to establish. We must ask ourselves if it is enough to have beautiful masajid beneath whose domes and chandeliers all manner of injustices occur. Or shall we strive to establish communities that are built on eternal and universal concepts of justice, peace, kindness, love, and, above all, belief in and upholding the Oneness of Allah and the way of His Messenger. It is the latter to which Islam exhorts us.

For it is not the pillars and mortar that make a community, but rather the spiritual, moral, and natural aptitudes of each individual within it. We must refocus on those fundamental principles that formed the bedrock of the aspiring Muslim community in Madinah 1400 years ago. Meritocracy inheres in the very core of this prophetic vision.

Re-establishing the principles of meritocracy within our communities will help rekindle the love of justice and respect for the rights of others that we so desperately need. It will help us establish communities where every member can expect to develop and flourish in their God-given skills and talents, with no restriction on race, color, or social status. It will help us create a social system that is based on the leadership of the most God-fearing, morally worthy, dedicated, and talented individuals.

History teaches us that it was this same principle of meritocracy that ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdul-Aziz, may Allah have mercy upon him, had to reassert in order to reclaim the prosperity that the Muslim Ummah had lost by the time he took the position as Amir Al-Mu’mineen, Commander of the Faithful. He had to fight against his own family members who had been given positions of power in the government due to their family connections. Though his rule only lasted a few years, Muslim history acknowledges his accomplishments in recapturing that failing sense of success for the Ummah, and in so short a period.

If, truly, it is our desire to see the current Muslim Ummah prosper, then we too must re-establish a meritocratic ethic within our communities. Only this can lead us to a society in which every individual is valued and rewarded because of his or her personal competence, in accordance with the preserved Revelation of our singular Lord and the yet living example of His final Messenger.

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