Islam came into existence in circumstances, which were crying for liberation. The society in which Islam was born was tribal society lacking in any written law or well established social, political and economic institutions. People were steeped in superstitions. There was no written tradition and in pre-Islamic Mecca there were no more than 17 persons who could read and write.
Women, like in other societies of the time, enjoyed no respectability, dignity or status. Though throughout Arabia conditions of women differed, generally their plight was far from satisfactory. In many instances a girl child was buried alive. Women, in most parts of Arabia did not enjoy rights. Men could divorce them at will and could even pronounce triple divorce in one go and throw woman out of his house. In some parts of Arabia even polyandry was practiced.
Slavery was widespread and slaves had no rights at all and they were generally maltreated. Master could enjoy sexual relations with slave-girls as a matter of rights and could even use her for earning through prostitution. The plight of slaves was worse in Mecca where they were used for loading and unloading camels carrying luxury goods for trade across desert to parts of Roman Empire towards North and Northwest.
The poor and orphans and widows and other weaker sections of society were being totally neglected as against tribal traditions and few tribal leaders were indulging in reckless accumulation of wealth. Mecca was experiencing great social tensions. Weaker sections were feeling highly dissatisfied with existing conditions but had no way out. There were no political institutions, nor any available channels of protest.
Mecca was in a state of transition. Old tribal structure was breaking down and new socio-economic situation was fast emerging but Meccan society lacked corresponding economic, political, cultural and spiritual institutions. The new emerging society needed institutions corresponding to new changes taking place in Meccan society. The old institutions were totally out of place and thoroughly inadequate to meet new challenges.
The Prophet of Islam, a sensitive soul to others' suffering, himself was an orphan and had first hand knowledge of the suffering and social and spiritual malaise then existing in Mecca. He retreated to a cave and began reflecting on the given situation. He began to receive revelation, which was not only spiritual but also designed to address people's problems in specific situation of Mecca as well as universally for all human beings.
The Meccan revelations were spiritual as well as socio-economic in content. It emphasised values of justice ('adl), benevolence (ihsan), rahmah (compassion) and hikmah (wisdom). These values, though not totally unknown in Arabian society, were hardly emphasised, let alone practiced. The Qur'an laid central emphasis on these values and made them very basis of reconstruction of new society. Islam created concept of a new human being - a mu'min, who would base her/his character on these values. Such a new human would be a liberated human being.
The revelatory message received by the Prophet was liberative at various levels - spiritual, social and economic and they created new institutions, which formed the basis of this comprehensive liberation. Since these values and institutions based on these values were highly detrimental to the vested interests dominating the Meccan society, they opposed the new movement tooth and nail.
Islam came with a liberative message at different level, as pointed out above. Its first liberative level is spiritual. But what is to be noted is that the spiritual is not devoid of social. The very spiritual basis of Islam is belief in one God - Allah. However, this spiritual contained social in it in as much as unity of God on theological level also translated into unity of all breaking all tribal barriers, on social level.
If one accepts concept of one God transcending all tribal barriers, it would result in shift of power from tribal leaders to the giver of this message, namely the Prophet of Islam. The tribal leaders who controlled all levers of social, economic and political power, were not ready to accept this shift of power from them to the Messenger of Allah.
For a tribally fragmented society of Arabs message of unity of God i.e. tawhid was quite revolutionary indeed. It had great potential of transcending all tribal, national, racial and geographical barriers and establishing a universal society freed of all prejudices of tribe, race, caste, ethnicity, language and colour. And the Qur'an indeed gave this message of unity of all human beings in different ways, see verse 49:13. According to this verse though human beings have been created as different tribes and nations so that they could be identified, not for permanent division. Also it made it clear that all human beings have equal honour (17:70). Whatever ones nation, caste, colour or tribe, all have equal dignity.
This was indeed a revolutionary message of equality of all human beings and effective tool to demolish all barriers. No wonder than the tribal leaders in Mecca strongly resented this social shift in power from tribes to new human community and not only opposed but also persecuted him and his followers.
The very first revelation to the Prophet emphasised reading and acquisition of knowledge (96:1). As pointed out above, there were only 17 persons among Arabs of Mecca who could read and write. Thus Qur'an emphasised learning through reading. Knowledge is great liberator and the Qur'an repeatedly uses the word 'ilm (knowledge). Allah is also repeatedly described in the Qur'an as 'Alim, Allam (Knower or Great Knower) and people are exhorted again and again to learn and to acquire knowledge.
Thus learning and knowledge became the keel of Islamic culture. The Muslims not only developed their own knowledge based on Qur'an and hadith (the Prophet's sayings and doings) but also revived forgotten knowledge of the Greeks, Persians and Indians which happened to be the ancient centres of learning. They produced great philosophers and scientists in the first 6 centuries of Islam. Thus not only Arabia but also other parts of world who were living life of ignorance and superstitions were liberated and new civilization based on spiritual and, philosophical and physical sciences was created. It gave much needed light to the world.
The Qur'an brought about liberation on another plane, not only for the Arabs but for entire humanity. It tried to rid the society of prevailing social and religious superstitions and taught them importance of reason 'aql. In Mecca due to ignorance and tribal customs, many superstitious practices were prevalent. People prayed to various tribal gods and goddesses and wove fabric of blind faith around them.
The concept of one God and universal dignity of human beings with the power of reasoning helped break this unusual hold of superstition on the minds of people. The Qur'an attacked blind faith in these superstitions and emphasised the need for reasoning and reflection (ta'aqqul and tafakkur). The story of Prophet Abraham and his conversion from a superstitious worshipper of stars and idols, small and big to a worshipper of one God, effectively brings out need for reasoning in Qur'an.
This emphasis on reasoning and faith encouraged Muslims to observe phenomenon of this universe and reflect on its creation and creator. It also emphasised unity of creation and laws of creation. It tried to demolish various superstitions by emphasising that laws of nature do not change (35:43). People normally expected God to favour them and alter natural laws to favour them. The Qur'an maintained resolutely that Allah does not change laws of nature to favour any one. This is very basis of science. Laws of nature do not change for sake of any individual and study of these laws brings about scientific progress.
Thus the Qur'an liberated man beings from various superstitions and expectations of miracles, laying foundation for sound rational thinking. However, all sorts of superstition returned to Muslim society for various reasons, not to be discussed here. Its causes are poverty, illiteracy and backwardness, not Islam. Its generally poorer and weaker sections of society which embraced Islam thus dragging it to their own level, rather than rising to the higher rational and spiritual levels of the Qur'an.
Another level of liberation is liberation from poverty, oppression and injustices bringing about just distribution of wealth. The Qur'an showed great sympathy with weaker sections of society and attacked accumulation of wealth at the cost of suffering of others. The Qur'an says Allah is with weaker sections of society (see 28:5). Oppression and exploitation (zulm) is strongly condemned by the Qur'an. Zulm literally means darkness implying thereby that exploitation and oppression leads the world to darkness.
Similarly the Qur'an lays great emphasis on justice ('adl). It lays moral foundation of society of justice and Allah is described as Just ('Adil). No one suffer injustices at the hands of Allah on the Day of Judgement (99:7). Justice is very central to the Qur'anic morality. The whole social order is to be based on justice and it is duty of Muslims to fight against zulm which essentially means injustice. The Qur'an also exhorts Muslims not to weigh less and this means essentially to keep balance in social order. An unjust social order is un-Islamic order.
Qur'an comprehensively deals with the question of justice. Justice ('adl) is fundamental value in Qur'an including economic justice or distributive justice. The most disturbing aspect of early Islamic movement in Mecca, as far as the powerful tribal leaders were concerned, was Qur'anic attack on accumulation of wealth. Qur'an powerfully denounced accumulation of wealth in chapter 104, which is a Meccan chapter. Such verses greatly perturbed the Meccan leaders.
For them to accept the Prophet's denunciation of accumulation of wealth amounted to self denunciation and injuring their self respect. Also, it would have meant distributing their wealth to the needy. It should be noted that due to accumulation of wealth social tensions were on increase in Meeca and poverty was spreading. What was worse the poor, the orphans and the needy were being totally neglected.
Also, there was no government to take care of the poor by taxing the rich and bringing about redistribution of wealth. Not only that tribal leaders were neglecting their win tribal norms, they were indulging in ostentatious life. Such ostentatious life-style further exacerbated social unrest. The Qur'an, therefore, instituted the concept of zakah (poor tax), which was made obligatory for the rich. This zakah amount so collected was to be distributed among the weaker sections of society.
The concept of zakah was instituted to help all weaker sections of society including slaves and the indebted see verse 9:60. This verse clearly shows how sensitive the Qur'an is to the sufferings of weaker sections of society. A healthy society is one which is essentially a society in which all can live with freedom and dignity and this is not possible if a section of population lives in poverty, in need or as indebted. Such people cannot hold their head high, let alone enjoy dignity.
In Mecca the opposite was happening; the poor was being neglected, slavery was widespread and a large number of people were indebted. The rich cannot show off and indulge in ostentation proudly if there are no people of lowly status to compare with. The rich wants to be privileged vis-୶is the poor and weak. Status and privilege caters to their ego. If the poor is given rights and dignity the rich resent it.
The message of Islam was highly liberative for the poor as Islam treated all human beings as equal in dignity and declared in verse 49:13. Thus not the rich but the honest and pious are closer to Allah. This greatly hurt their ego. The rich always think they are the best and most desirable and hate the weaker section of society.
The Prophet, on the other hand, gave great importance to the lowliest of low in the society. He liberated his slave Bilal and gave him the privilege of calling the faithfuls to prayer. This privilege the Prophet did not give to some of his better off companions. The Prophet wanted to give message of equality that a slave, liberated or otherwise, is as dignified as any other human being who is rich and powerful.
The rich of Mecca thus greatly resented rise of the Prophet and his equalising movement. The Prophet was bringing about shift of power from rich to the downtrodden of Mecca (and thereby of all the downtrodden of the world) and this was not in any case acceptable to the rich and powerful of Mecca (neither it would ever be acceptable to the rich and powerful of the world anywhere). If this fundamental shift of power from rich and powerful to the downtrodden of the world takes place the world will become much more just and peaceful.
The Qur'an, it is very interesting to note, made establishing a just world order a spiritual act, an act of prayer. All verses in Qur'an about prayer (salat) are coupled with giving of zakah. Thus prayer must be accompanied by giving of zakah to ameliorate the plight of the poor and needy and the indebted. Mere prayer to Allah will be merely a personal spiritual act, at best but this personal spirituality will not remove economic distress from the world and that world which is full of suffering for other human beings, cannot be a truly spiritual world.
Thus to relieve the poor and marginalized of their distress and suffering is an spiritual act. The Prophet is also reported to have said that to feed a hungry widow is more meritorious than praying whole night. The Qur'an does not approve of prayer (salat) when the orphans and needy are suffering and being pushed away. Such prayer will be soulless and for only showing off. (see chapter 107). Thus Islam stresses collective spirituality through ceaseless efforts to end all forms of exploitation and oppression.
The concept of jihad in Islam has been very much misunderstood thanks to misuse of the concept by handful of Muslims for their own vested interests. According to the Prophet real and best form of jihad is to speak truth on the face of a tyrant authority. It need not be said that one cannot establish a just society without struggling against tyranny and exploitation in ones own society. A liberated society is possible only through constant struggle for justice and dignity for whole of humanity.
Thus jihad is always directed against zulm - oppression and exploitation. It can never be directed against innocent people. Taking lives of innocent people amounts to zulm and jihad is meant fight against zulm. Such jihad would mean perpetrating zulm rather than fighting against it. The struggle against tyranny and exploitation should never take violent form. Needless violence vitiates the goal of a just society. That is why violence is not permitted by the Qur'an except for self- defence and any violation of this principle amounts to exceeding the limits (hudud) set by Allah. (see 2:190).
Jihad is not an individual concept. It is a collective struggle by all people against tyrants and exploiters. Jihad is a very important concept in Islam. Jihad is a struggle for justice and human dignity and for establishing a society where human rights and human dignity will be ensured and is collective and peaceful action. The Qur'an requires all faithfuls to enforce good (ma'ruf) and fight evil (munkar).
What is ma'ruf? It is nothing but all that is good and what is good - something that is just and what is evil? It is injustice and exploitation. Enforcing what is good and fighting what is evil is the best jihad one can wage and it is collective and on-going one. Thus jihad is not by weapons but through peaceful struggles, refusing to accept what is unjust and against dignity of all human beings.
In this respect the chapter 103, which was revealed in Mecca. The translation of this small chapter is as under:
By the Time!
Surely human being is in loss,
Except those who believe and do good, and exhort one another to Truth,
And exhort one another to patience.
In these few lines the Qur'an has said everything that need to be said for good of humanity, for its liberation. Human beings would remain in loss unless they believe in good and do good. They should induce each other for following truth and for remaining patient. One cannot believe and do good and be truthful without having tremendous degree of patience.
This is certainly not one time action, it is constant process; it cannot be confined to one person, it is a collective act and that is why the Qur'an uses plural and not singular form. All Human beings will be in loss if they do not believe in good and truth and continuously struggle for these values and with all patience at their command. These words, goodness, truth and patience clearly show that peaceful struggle is required, not violent one resulting in bloodshed.
Imam Shafi'I, one of the great jurists of Islam rightly observed that if only this surah (chapter) was revealed and nothing else to the Prophet, it would have been more than sufficient. This small chapter contains everything a human society needs for welfare of entire humanity. Such a society can only be a liberated society from all forms of injustices, oppression and exploitation.
Since no society can be free of all forms of oppression, exploitation and injustices, there is need for constant struggle by those who believe in justice, human dignity and truth and this belief need to be practiced as much as believed. One should keep continuous vigil against zulm and any form of exploitation.
Thus it will be seen that the Qur'an came as a liberator of entire humanity and brought those fundamental values, which are needed to evolve a liberated society. The Qur'an also accepts the fact that several prophets, guides and seers came in this world for the same purpose and Muhammad (PBUH) was the last among them. Thus in essence all religions of the world came for liberation of humanity but some human beings, to serve their own vested interests, sabotaged or distorted this message of liberation and the world could not be liberated from exploitation, injustices and indignities.
There is strong need today for followers of all religions and believers in fundamental values like equality, justice, truth, love, compassion, peace, human dignity and sensitivity to suffering, should come together and struggle for restoring these values in practice.