The Concept of Balance in Islam
by Bilgin Erdogan
“...thus, have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations...” (surah Al-Baqarah; 2:143)
Balance; the backbone of Islamic ethics, lyrics of a symphony that existence compose... the life-giving message on the dogma of mankind; who is the caliph of existence, the precise concept of Islam. It is the complete balance doctrine of monotheism. In contrast, paganism represents the most terrible excessiveness of polytheism. Balance is the main message of prophethood and a summary of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) ethics, and the description of the Prophet’s companions’ moral examples and success. It is also describes the modest expectation of a Muslim shaped by divine revelations. Where balance is the soul of worshiping, it is also the fruit of worship itself. Balance is the second name of Islam that becomes a bridge between East and West. It acts as the common voice of wisdom, conscience, disposition and revelation. Balance is a noble ethic giving life to us...
Balance is a key word. This Ramadan, approximately five hundred prisoners are fasting in an American penitentiary from its total population of more or less two thousand. One in four prisoners is fasting in Ramadan. If I am asked what the most prominent fruit of fasting is, I would say “balance”. Especially prisoners they must learn to be well-balanced because imbalance is the cause of their imprisonments to begin with. Some are put in jail because of their out of balance worldly ambition resulting in a tendency towards easy-money. Would it happen if they had idealized afterlife as much as temporary life? Some other types suffer from imbalance of emotions like uncontrolled fury and sexual abuse. Each crime has a basis of imbalance. False worship is the greatest offense and imbalance; Allah is Omnipotent and His subject is worshiping something else. Because balance concept is essential, in this chapter I am going to share my ideas about it in the light of the verse above.
Macrocosmic and Microcosmic Balance
Balance is a divine reality that presence depicts. Everything in universe is proceeding with natural rhythm and equilibrium. The sun is not an inch closer to or farther away from earth so that we do not burn or freeze, and there is life. Life would cease if there was no balance in the solar system. Not even a microscopic creature would survive if the chain failed to a minimal degree. A flower fades away from lack of water but decays if watered excessively. So it needs balanced watering to survive. The order of daytime and night time, as well as the consecutive seasons, all are proceeding according to perfect balance of nature. Places that witness only daytime or only night time, or one permanent season are not much livable. I think the existence of daytime, night time and the four seasons are a blessing and lesson for rational human beings. Macrocosm gives a lesson about balance. You are alive as long as you are in balance is the message of the cosmic book.
The basic message that the microcosmic human anatomy gives to human willpower is again “O Man, be balanced!” If the temperature is extreme you burn but in the opposite condition you freeze. When your body temperature is imbalanced you sweat or chill. This body reaction scientifically called “homeostasis” is just an example of a call for balance. For example, the human eye has upper and lower limits. We use microscope to see infinitesimal things, whereas for immense things we use telescope. But the ideal lens is the human eye. No one wants to have vision like a telescope or microscope. You may say the same thing also for your ears. No one wants to have an ear capable of hearing the footsteps of ants. In the meantime life would be probably very unbearable if we could smell every single odor. Consequently human body shows us that not the extreme but the balanced is the perfect condition.
Human can survive because every organ in his body operates in a systematically balanced way. For example, it is the perfection of magnificent and self-portraying Allah that although a human being’s suprarenal glands and salivary glands are close to each other not more than a micron length, they do not interact with or avert each other. Suprarenal glands excrete urine but salivary glands excrete saliva so if they were mixed we would taste urine.
We become more perceptive about the perfect balance in the universe as we are more acquainted with science. Thus by the message “O Man, be balanced!” everything in the universe admonishes human beings which compose discordant melodies in the cosmic choir.
Creation of Man in Theological Perspective
I believe that the hidden message of the theo-ontological of human being is “Balance” one way or another. Mankind’s theo-ontology is “Hama’in Masnoon” which means clay. In the 26th verse of the surah Al-Hijr it is indicated that the core of man is clay. Thus, we can explain the existence of human being by the interaction of four basic components; air, water, fire and soil. Clay is a mixture of these four elements. The core of man that the verse describes basically identifies these four basic elements in the universe.
Mankind is created in the most beautiful form (ahsan-i takwim) because he has counterbalancing features ontologically. Satan had opposed this most beautiful form, displaying the imbalance and vanity in his character saying “I am created from fire but he is just clay.” The most ideal is the balanced form.
Human is the most beautiful form but then again he is also the lowermost (asfal-i safilin). Therefore we can be reckoned neither as an angel nor as an animal. While mankind is not errorless as angels, he is still on the other hand a caliphate on this earth. Hence the ideal is to be a moderate Ummah. So why were fallible humans and not the errorless angels that deemed worthy of caliphate? That is to say in order to be a witness one needs to be moderate and stay moderate.
Tawhid and Balance in Religious Faith
The spirit of Islam is balance. Tawhid in Islam is a balanced element especially when compared to atheism and paganism. A book without a penman or a needle without a tailor is unthinkable. Therefore we cannot explain existence without the presence of Allah. He is the One (only) that created everything and created many things from one thing whilst also one thing from many things.
Moreover Allah is a divinity beyond all pagan elements as we know from verses. Hence Allah cannot be likened to the sun god of Shinto, Hermes or Aphrodite of Ancient Greek, Hotor of Old Egypt or Apis ox. Yet He is unique and inconceivable. For that reason, a Muslim first says “La ilaha” meaning “there is no god” then goes on saying “illallah” meaning “but Allah alone” in order to assent tawhid. Tawhid not only deny atheism but also the perspective that reify Allah (ascribing a partner or rival to Allah), no matter if the form is material or persona. Therefore, tawhid is a choice for balance while idolatry is just the opposite.
Just like “La ilaha illallah”, the following part of the testimony “Muhammadan abduhu wa rasuluhu” is again an invitation to be balanced. It means that prophet Muhammad is a servant and messenger of Allah. In that sense Islam regards the Prophet first of all as a servant, then as a prophet. Hence, it is necessary that in Islam to keep the affection for the Prophet balanced. The Qur’an criticizes both the Jews for killing the prophets and the Christians for divinizing a prophet. Both attitudes amount to the same thing; to offend prophecy and carry it out. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) never let such a bias. When his son died a solar eclipse occurred. This brought an uproar claiming that the two events were interconnected but the Prophet immediately preached a sermon and said “Allah does not change His laws for a mortal.” The reason of this reaction was the previous multitudes acceptance of Jesus as preterhuman. In Islam both disrespecting the Prophet and regarding him as preterhuman are things that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) most certainly opposed. Such a balance is essential for prophethood after all.
Encouragement of Verses to Balance Affection towards the Prophet
A few times verses refer to the errors of prophets and that prophets are after all human. The most recognized one is the prophet Jonah anecdote in surah Anbiyaa. Surah Qasas reminds us of prophet Moses killing of an Egyptian. Verses denote the lapses of Adam, Noah and Abraham too.
The first ten verses of surah Abasa criticize the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) indicating the momentary negligence of an indigent. But for what reason? ...a reasonable question... If one of our creators name is Sattar which means He tolerates our failures so why, in verses, He mentions the failures of such special servants?
Definitely the major purpose of this is to provide the addressee with a precise affection towards the prophets. Because history of religions is full of horde examples which divinized their prophets, verses that allude to the lapses of prophets. Balancing the affection towards the prophets, evoking that they are human and not divine beings, these verses ensure the warning: “Oh servants beware! Do not mistake the prophets’ edifices in your mind with the edifice of Allah. Only Allah is excluded from defect and even a prophet can make mistakes.” An example of this tortious act is the Trinity in Christianity but certainly this confusion is not limited with Christian, we can exemplify multiple mythological characters. Many idols at the age of the prophet Noah were righteous people but as the time passed they turned out to be pagan graven images that the tribe natives worshipped. Here mankind mistook the images of their creator and their leaders.
Balancing the Purpose of Verses on Affection toward the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)
Some verses propose a balance in our affection towards the companions of our prophet. The Qur’an describes the companions of the prophet as “The best example of mankind” in surah Al-Imran and exalt them in surah Al-Jumu’ah but later criticizes them when they went after the commercial caravan on its way to Medina where they left the prophet Muhammad alone when he was preaching. They dissipated during Uhud battle because of their greed for the seized property.
Muslims Mentality and Their Basis of ‘Balance’
The Qur’an reminds us of the mercy of Allah by referring to heaven, and then mentions His rage by portraying hell. There are two ill frames of mind, one of which is extreme self-assurance. This type of person over relies on his good deeds as if he has been guaranteed heaven. He almost vainly says “Who deserves heaven more than I do?” The second unbalanced type is the pessimist. He thinks that hell is guaranteed for him. He is such in hopeless state that he likely to say “I am a damned miserable soul, Allah will never forgive me.” At that point the verses refer to both the rage and mercy of Allah to dispel both disorders.
So what is Islam’s principle in this matter? The answer is a modest expectation, meaning that a muslim must be afraid of Allah’s rage whilst at the same time he must not lose hope to obtain His grace. Abu Bakar (r.a) instructively says “If I am told that only one man will go to heaven, I hope to be that man. Then again if I am told that only one man will go to hell, I get scared of being that man”. Like Suhrawardi (Islamic philosopher) he bellowed through the heart of the night “0 Night! Darken as much as you can because the end of your domain is the beginning of brightness.” Thus, a muslim is neither conceited nor despondent but faithful, between hope and fear.
Balance in Islamic Epistemology
According to Islamic epistemology there are three basic means to reach the truth which are narrations, intelligence and insight. Three major schools were established in the history of Islamic epistemology.
These were; Burhan school prioritizing intelligence, Bayan school prioritizing narrations and Irfan school prioritizing insight.
From Burhan school emerged great men like Avicenna, Averrhoes, Al-Biruni. Bayan school produces significant scholars like Ibni Kayyum, Ibni Kathir and Ibni Taymiyah. Lastly from Irfan school sincere muslims like Mawlana and Ahmad Yasawe. They all moderately attained balance between narrations, intelligence and insight with different methods.
The epistemological problems that Islamic world has faced in the last five centuries have a basis of immoderately analyzing the three aspects mentioned above. Some have concentrated on only intelligence ignoring narrations and insight, some have just paid attention to narrations but stopped thinking and for some the only guide have been insight although the Qur’an has been sent to us to comprehend and not just for appreciation. Mustafa İslamoğlu interprets that there are three kinds of victims in the Islam world: 1) Victims of the Book, 2) Victims of Beads, and 3) Victims of Weapon.
The victims of the book can be described as a group taking heed of only narrations and intellectual Islamic life. Communion and disputation on Islam are their interests. They lead a life embedded in books but when it comes to action, they distance themselves. Victims of beads can be categorized as people living in a secluded world of emotions. Instead of forming an Islamic constitution to solve the problems of muslims, they ask for divine guidance through dreams or intuition. They do not care about their hungry neighbors, the grievance of muslims in their country. They prefer to be lifeless in the hands of a corpse washer than a martyr in the opposite ranks of an infidel. The third version of victims is the people who service Islam politically to their benefit. They pour into streets shouting their fight for a certain cause but their moral infirmity is in contrast with what they do. They show their exactitude about the bloodshed in Palestine but they lack the intellectual view to comprehend the incident. “Get up! There’s civil insurrection” slogans pleased them more than the sound of adhan (call for pray).
However narrations, intelligence and insight are integral. The relation between intelligence and narrations is akin to the relation between an eye and light. Intelligence without narrations and narrations without thinking are ineffective. Somebody can look if he has got an eye and there is light but he needs sensation to have sight. Thus these three facets must be analyzed as a whole. Inspired from Shatibi, Mustafa İslamoğlu has suggested to combine narrations, intelligence and insight stating that, in order of importance, intellect or reasoning is mandatory (zaruriyat), nas or narration is necessary (hajiyat) and insight or intuition is beautiful which acts as a refinement (tahsiniyyah). Consequently, all of the said aspects are required to make a perfect balance. Serious problems ensue in Islamic epistemology if we do not handle these three aspects altogether.
Balance is Intrinsic for Servanthood
Balance is the crown of servanthood and the fruit of all prayers. Servanthood requires moderation. In a hadith prophet Muhammad (pbuh) says “Make provision as if you will die tomorrow and do not relinquish your portion in this world.” He suggests us to attain a balance between afterlife and worldly responsibilities. Giving charity is a must but it is not acceptable in Islam if one distributes all of his property. Fasting is a must in Ramadan; fasting on Mondays and Thursdays is sunnah but a servant of Allah fasting yearlong is identical to a servant never fasting during the year. Muhammad (pbuh) emphasizes that the paramount worship is habitually done on an average. Servants need balanced worship but at the same time the fruit of worshiping is balance. For instance, Salah is an actual training on leading a balanced life in all aspects. A person who prays understands his place in the hierarchal order of the created; standing up in Salah, he spontaneously perceive his sins, ruku’ evokes him his sense of incapability and he feels dependent on his Creator in sujud. Thus, he does not transgress and realizes that vanity is unreasonable.
Yet fasting provides mental and physical balance. His soul gets benefit from fasting and when breaking the fast his body rejoices. He spares the best food for the meal. Here a fasting muslim differs from a fasting monk. Islam regards the body as the custody of Allah in contrast to clericals presuming it as an offence. A muslim perceives that he is weak and does not conceit. Zakat teaches the servant what devotion requires and places the idea “Although transient, you are the owner of the wealth but beware though wealth is not your owner.” Most people turn out to be a passive being or a languid hermit because they cannot obtain balance in secular ambitions in this mortal life. But Qur’an instructs us to earn first, then to share. Commanding the individual to earn, it makes him the protagonist of his life and inculcates him to share; it stops him from being a servant of money. In case of deviance from Islamic principles, the individual loses mastery of his goods but his goods begin to master him.
Giving charities at the same time aims to break the imbalance between the poor and the rich in a community. This imbalance causes turmoil in the community. When the rich supports the poor not only the imbalance between them is removed but also the poor approach to the monetary fund becomes positive. As a result it ends the imprudent idea which regards monetary fund as robbery and thus illegal.
Pilgrimage is a representative of the Judgment Day and compensates the worldly servants. It makes the pilgrim face his life and internal world. It depicts the temporariness of this world and propagates balance between this world and afterworld. All principles are based on balance in Islam. Balance is the key idea.
Alija Izetbegović: Islam as a Bridge between Civilizations
Alija Izetbegović considers Islam as a balanced civilization, thus a bridge between the eastern and western civilizations. According to him there are purely three worldviews, one of which is the concept of eastern civilizations that embrace pioneers like Buddha, Plato, Hegel, Kant or Henry Bergson under the sway of Hindu, Christianity and Idealism. On the other edge is the concept of western civilizations drowned into Capitalism, Judaism and Grecian norms that influenced Aristotle, Hobbes, Marx and Russell. The first concept prioritizes the soul while the second is completely materialist. Islam on the other hand covers all aspects of life; spiritual, material, education, political & social. It is well-rounded and emphasizes balance in all life-matters.
Alija Izetbegović says that the history is full of controversies between soul and material, abstract and concrete, quality and quantity, monastery and academy, monks and knights, science and the church, moral tragedy and reality of life. Islam is a bridge between these two worlds. Consequently, it is the worldview which originates from tawhid belief containing the clergy and academy, physics and metaphysics, the soul and the material altogether in its structure. Ali Şeriati in his book named “Us and Ikbal” makes attributions to these controversies in the historical period. Lao Tse conveyed China otherworldly values then Confucius dragged them into secularity. The same thing happened in the west. Rome brought Christian mysticism but afterwards with Renaissance secularity and positivism prevailed again in the western world. Worldly or otherworldly, the two extremes instigated each other and Alija Izetbegović describes Islam as the system of values that attain balance between these two.
In other words, Islam is a religion of balance between two clashing worlds and will retain this quality. Islamic society must refresh itself by the lore of madrasah, the ethics of dervish convents and the discipline of barracks. I mean that the imbalance between soul and material must be eliminated. Islam is neither ignoring the problems of the world by seclusion as in some perverse dervish lodges nor participating in only the political issues about Islam and forgetting the other responsibilities of worship. If we put true Islam into practice, then a balanced muslim civilization will emerge because of the life-giving concept of balance as manifested by our compassionate Sustainer Allah and His messenger Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
Balance in Reaction to Social Events
It is an essential method of Islamic practices to be balanced in our reactions to social events as in every branch of life. Moderate people are able to do substantial works. Thus balance must be a priority in our approaches as much as in our worship. If there is balance, the social movement will be lasting or else it will be marginalized and melt away.
In order to explain this subject it is better to give a concrete example. After the caliphate in the Ottoman Empire was abolished, different reactions and disappointments occurred in Anatolia (Turkey). Between these, the most moderate protest could be the long lasting one. One of these reactions was the Sheikh Said rebellion where the insurgents were armed. Consequently they were suppressed and Sheikh Said was killed together with his followers. Another example was Ahmet Hamdi Akseki. Akseki became part of the system and the director of the Department of Religious Affairs in the new secular state. Though his intention was to inject his ideas into the government system he was eventually silenced by officials. It was not workable and he in the end faded away. On the other hand, the most moderate was Said Nursi. He neither became a part of the system nor took up arms but still disapproved of the official functions like being the common sermon of the East and then left the parliament. He went on to writing his book named Risale-i Nur and started to educate the generation. He barely involved in politics and was cautious in his path. He chose the middle path, away from any extremism. He turned to the heart of his country and strived for adherence to Islam. I think for that reason he became well acknowledged and won massive support from the public. Consequently, his ideas survive his generation and further embraced by the current, and I believe so will the future.
Conclusion: Thus there is life in balance. Balance must be the principal cause in every aspect of life so that we can be attesters of humanity. The verse is “Thus, have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced, that ye might be witnesses over the nations...” (2:143). This verse reminds us of the truth that there is life in balance and that balance is a divine law.