"Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer "He's blind now because of the tear gas," another student leaned over to whisper to me. "Who is that," I asked? "Well that's James Farmer Jr," came the reply. As a new student fumbling my way along, those lectures at Mary Washington College in Virginia would be a formative experience for me. That was my first encounter with someone who had been prepared to sacrifice in order to do something about "it". I was captivated.
I can't help but sympathise with the experience of the German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer during his sojourn at the Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan. It was the 1930s and the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, the melancholy sounds of Billie Holiday singing Strange Fruit, Hughes and Countee Cullen agitating for full enfranchisement through poetry that was at once bold and elegant. Bonhoeffer was affected. In Harlem he was an outsider; but he would translate that driving spirit into his own theology, leading him to become one of the most outspoken critics of the ascendant Nazi regime in Germany. On April 9 he would be executed for his participation in the Abwehr plot to assassinate Hitler, plunging the theological world into an unremitting struggle with the limits and ethics of duty and dissent.
It was more straightforward for the Jurist and theologian Abd al-Ghani al-Ghunaymi. The Ottoman government in Damascus was at a loss to hold back the rapidly growing mobs hell-bent on killing every Christian man, woman and child over an incident that was sparked off in the Lebanon Mountains in 1860. His theology would have told him that every human soul is sacred and has the right to live with dignity. His jurisprudence would have told him that the principle of "communal obligation" says that if no one else is doing anything, then you must act now. We studied his book on dialectic theology, and our teacher Dr Mutii al Hafiz used to say: "Abd al Qadir was in Ammarah and Abd al Ghani was in Midan." In co-ordination with one another they created safe havens and held their ground by sheer moral force and thousands were protected until the riots subsided.
The principle of "communal obligation" (fard kifayah) states that every adult member of society bears the responsibility to secure any missing aspect of the "common good" (maslahat al-ammah) so long as it is unfilled. They all remain in a state of sin until a sufficient number rise to fulfil the duty; only then is accountability lifted from the rest. This obligation can be summed up in the extension of the five purposes of Sharia to the polis and its citizenry regardless of ethnicity or religious affiliation. These purposes are the protection of life, educational opportunity, freedom of conscience, human dignity and private property.
Responsibility for the social-ethical imperative also comes to bear when any of these are threatened or denied to any member of society. The Quran warns, "and do not deny to anyone any right due to their." The verse contains an implication of binding obligation. A hadith mentions that faith is 70 some branches, the highest of which is the testimony of Divine Unicity and the lowest is to remove anything harmful from the public thoroughfare. Between the two, there remains much work to be done.
Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi