By Khaled Abou El Fadl
31 December, 2014
A basic tenet of Islamic theology is that God has no wants or needs. Everything that God has revealed through God's angels and prophets is for the well-being and prosperity of the recipients of the revelation. God gave human beings a covenant, which, if they accept it, is for their own benefit, and if they reject it, is to their own detriment.
In Islamic law, this principle is translated into a number of legal maxims that articulate a mandate to remove harm and end suffering. In other words, the law of God mandates a normative obligation, both collective and individual, to act to alleviate harm and suffering. This, in turn, becomes the basis for the often made argument that anything that causes suffering or misery cannot be a part of the Shari'a or God's law.
The moral and legal obligation to alleviate or end suffering and hardship helps in understanding the importance of happiness in the Islamic outlook, but the alleviation of suffering and hardship is not the same as the achievement of happiness. Even if the most faithful try their utmost to end hardship, suffering and misery, this does not amount to the realization of happiness.
Although God is self-sufficient and described as the Giver, happiness is not realized through simple practice, obedience, or some other formalistic or legalistic dynamic. An effective way to begin to understand the Islamic outlook is to ponder the Prophet Muhammad's refrain: "Whoever succeeds in knowing himself will come to know his Lord."
One of the consistent themes in the very large literary corpus dealing with the issue of Sa'ada, or happiness, is an inextricable link drawn between knowledge and enlightenment on the one hand, and happiness on the other. The more a believer knows about himself, about other people and cultures, and about the world, the more such a believer will be capable of understanding the balance (Mizan) that is necessary in striving for justice with the self and others (Qist). Indeed the struggle to learn, and to achieve self-knowledge and knowledge of the other, is labelled by the Prophet as the highest and most challenging form of jihad.
The Qur'an describes those who succeed in understanding the balance and in achieving enlightenment as existing in a true state of happiness. They are in a state of harmony and peace with themselves, creation and God. This is a state of blissful tranquillity, equilibrium and ultimately, peace. In this serene and harmonious state, enlightened believers enjoy a special relationship with God. The Qur'an describes them as people who come to enjoy a complete sense of fulfilment (Rida); they trust God, and God trusts them; they love God, and God loves them (see Q. 13:28; 5:119; 9:100; 58:22; 98:8).
The state of enlightenment and happiness that they enjoy pervades every aspect of their being, to the point that the Qur'an describes their blissful happiness as manifesting on their joyous and luminous faces; they tread the earth with their inner light between the palms of their hands, which most scholars agree is a symbolic reference to attainment of the divine grace of wisdom (see Q. 57:12; 66:8; 24:40).
The Jihad against Jahiliya
The themes of knowledge, enlightenment, balance, peace and tranquillity are central to the Islamic theology of happiness. But if these concepts represent the ideal of happiness, the complete failure of true happiness is literally embodied by the idea of Jahiliya (a state of ignorance). In Islamic source materials, it is common to refer to the period preceding the Prophet's revelation in Mecca as the Jahiliya. However, I do not believe that Jahiliya is a historical category as much as it is a moral concept.
Jahl means ignorance, heedlessness, lack of awareness, and even idiocy or foolishness, but with a clear connotation of the perverse, pernicious, dark, foreboding and inauspicious. In Islamic eschatology, it is common to refer to a people plagued by ignorance, injustice, cruelty and hatred as a people living in a state of Jahiliya. Ingratitude, selfishness and arrogance, as well as the prevalence of vice and inequity in any society, are all thought to be characteristics of Jahiliya.
The Prophet taught that blind ethnic and tribal allegiances are part of Jahiliya - part of existing in a state of moral ignorance. Jahiliya is a condition of narcissism, self-involvement and ignorance that exists to varying degrees at varying times inside a person's heart that, from a faith-based perspective, should be cleansed by God's light and love. As the Qur'an asserts, it is not physiological blindness but the blindness of the soul and heart that leads one into darkness and misery (Q. 22:46).
Every period of human history has suffered its share of Jahl and Jahiliya. Jahiliya is as entrenched in human history as the social ailments of bigotry, racism, hatred and oppression. But speaking as a Muslim, I believe in Islam's enduring role of unyielding resistance to the temptations and false pleasures of Jahiliya.
Islam is the belief in an ideal - the ideal of submission to God and only to God, and freedom from submission to all else, including false idols, the worst of which is the egotistical self. The word "Islam" connotes the dual meanings of submission to God and the finding of peace in God. To go through the enlightenment of finding peace in God does not mean the annihilation of the self in God. It does mean gaining the wisdom to understand the balance between the self, the other, and God, and to exist in harmony with the self, creation, and the Maker.
In Shari'a discourses, God is recognized as having rights (Huquq Allah), but so do human beings (known as Huquq al-'Ibaad). Finding peace in God means comprehending the just balance of rights, and struggling to preserve this balance by giving each right its due. The implications of the theology of submission to God are profound and numerous, and they pervade every aspect of the search for happiness, whether it be at the personal or the social level. If submission to and peace in God are to be meaningful in any real sense, persistent resistance and rebellion against the personal Jahiliya of the iniquitous and uprooted soul, and against the social conditions and structures that compel the sufferance of ignorance and hatred, are mandatory. To see with the light of God instead of the fogginess of the ego mandates disciplining the ego with the humility brought about by a searching intellect and an active conscience.
The theology of Islam resists the state of Jahiliya by calling upon human beings to wage a relentless jihad in pursuit of enlightenment and against the oppressiveness of ignorance and the social and political deformities and illnesses that spread in the absence of justice. The jihad against Jahiliya is a constant struggle to bring balance and peace to one's own soul, and to pursue balance and peace for one's society and for humanity. In other words, it is a jihad to bring justice within and without - for oneself and for all of humanity.
This jihad is a never-ending effort at self-enlightenment as well as the pursuit of enlightenment at the community and social level. The Prophet of Islam described the act of engaging the self, critically and honestly - the confrontation of the self with the self - as the highest form of jihad (al-jihad al-Akbar, or the greater jihad).
It is quite true that it is very difficult to gaze long and hard at one's self and see the inequities and faults, not as an excuse for nihilistic self-effacement and apathy, but as part of an ongoing struggle to cleanse, purify and grow with Divinity or into Divinity. Indeed, this is much harder than any armed war in which one could engage. Living persistently and patiently to sacrifice the ego for the love of God is much harder than a simple death in the name of God.
The sages of Islamic theology have written so much about the perils of leading a life without introspection and self-criticism, and of the maladies of a soul that allows fear, anxiety and insecurity to distract it from the greatest jihad - the jihad against the self. Without introspection and self-judgment, a person grows complacent with his or her ego until all sense of reasonable and just self-perception is gone. And, as already noted, in Islamic theosophy, self-knowledge and knowledge of God are inseparable.
From Godlessness to Godliness
The Qur'an instructs Muslims to discuss and deliberate as a means of confronting and solving problems (known as the obligation of Shura, or consultation), but for these deliberations to be genuine and meaningful, a measure of humility and self-awareness is necessary (Q. 3:159; 42:38 ;). Moreover, one of the central themes of the Qur'an is the normative obligation of enjoining what is good and resisting what is bad or evil (al-Amr bi'l Ma’ruf wa al-Nahi 'an al-Munkar).
In the Qur'anic discourse, the seriousness with which this individual and collective obligation is taken often constitutes the difference between a moral and happy society, and a society plagued by injustices and suffering under the weight of moral ignorance. Islamic theological discourses often emphasize that selfishness, egoism, cowardice, ignorance and apathy are the major reasons why people fail to rise to the challenge of this moral obligation and, as a result, end up perpetuating the darkness of Jahiliya.
Muslim theologians conceived of an interconnected process in which reflection and deliberation (Tafakkur Wa Al-Nazar Wa'l Ta'ammul) would lead to the realization of the importance of goodness, the seeking of knowledge (Talab Al-'Ilm) would lead to a comprehension of the moral good, and the struggle against the ego would enable people to actively engage and pursue goodness. The failure of this process would mean that society would lose its moral anchor and, in the process, itself. Dwelling in this condition of Jahiliya, human beings would deny themselves the opportunity to grow from a state of godlessness to Godliness.
In the Islamic outlook, a believer is expected to be in a constant state of resistance to the state of Jahl and the disease of Jahiliya. In a sense, in struggling to submit to the Almighty, a Muslim struggles for liberation from and against the captivity of godlessness. Godliness is not just a conviction or belief; it is a practice and a state of being. And this state, which is essentially connected to beauty - with the attributes of divinity such as love, mercy, justice, tranquillity, humility and peace - is antithetical to Jahiliya, which is associated with the ailments suffered in a state of godlessness such as hate, cruelty, inequity, arrogance, anxiety and fear.
In the language of the Qur'an as well as in the teachings of the Prophetic Sunna, Godliness is not a status or entitlement; it is a state of being in which a person emanates Godliness not just in his or her ethical beliefs and conduct, but in the very spirit and aura that emanates from and enfolds such a person. Hence, the Prophet described (Q. 3:79; 5:44) the truly godly as those who reach a stage where it is as if they see with God's eyes, hear with God's ears, and feel with God's heart, and thus become godly human beings ('Ibadun Rabbaniyyun).
In contrast, when human beings embrace their Jahiliya and turn away from God's path and grace, they dwell in the misery brought about by their own weaknesses, insecurities and imbalances. In traditional Islamic theology, the state of being that embodies Godliness is known as Ihsan - a state of being beautified by divinity and its goodness. The closer human beings come towards the ideal of Godliness or Ihsan, the more they can experience true happiness. The more they drift away from themselves and descend into and settle for godlessness, the more elusive and misguided their quest for happiness becomes.
The Qur'an consistently draws a strong connection between those who have forgotten God and those who have forgotten themselves. In the Qur'anic usage, those who have forgotten themselves because of lack of honesty with the self and the failure to wrestle with and discipline the ego, and because of complacency towards their own moral failures, are identified as being marred by self-deception and moral alienation (Q. 58:19; 59:19).Those who forget themselves are at risk of drifting without the anchoring role and rootedness of God, and they are therefore at risk of being increasingly overcome by fears, anxieties and sadness.
The Maladies of the Modern Age
Every age of human history suffers from its share of Jahiliya. Every age is marred by dark practices of bigotry, hate, oppression, domination and subjugation, and suffering; thus, what is distinctive about the moral failures of our age is not their nature or kind. Indeed, the moral failures of our age remain disconcertingly, and perhaps even despairingly, similar to those of past ages.
What is different about our age is that while the moral failures remain the same, these same failures - these Jahiliya - are, today, less tolerable and more inexcusable than at any other time in history. Human beings continue to suffer from ignorance, but our ability to teach, learn and communicate is better than in any previous age. We continue to suffer from hate, bigotry and racism, but our knowledge of human sociology, anthropology and history - of our collective experience as human beings - makes these failures more offensive and less justifiable than at any other time in history.
We continue to wage war and slaughter each other, but at the same time, our ability to kill and cause destruction is more lethal and dangerous than at any other time in history. But our co-dependence on each other as human beings and our increasingly interlinked world, in addition to the unprecedented dangers posed by our weapons, make our constant resort to war and violence incomprehensible, and definitely less forgivable, than at any other time in history. In every sense, we possess the methods and tools for the anesthetization of pain and the pursuit of pleasure, but not for the end of suffering and the realization of happiness.
In this age, the problem lies not in our technical abilities or know-how. The problem lies in our will, our sense of purpose, our normative values, and indeed, in our very comprehension of humanness. Paradoxically, while our collective sense of the humane - our understanding of rights, denial and suffering - has improved, and while our technical ability to protect rights has been augmented, our ability to get beyond our isolation and limitations as individuals, and to reach for the transcendental and perennial in what is human, has deteriorated. In the modern age, our rational sense of the humane has increased but our spiritual grasp of the human has deteriorated.
Perhaps this is why so many philosophers have described the modern age as the age of anxiety, restlessness, up-rootedness, or groundlessness Indeed, the predicament of the modern age has been that while our intellectual capacities have sprung forward by leaps and bounds, our spiritual abilities have not. Our ability to access information about each other, and to collect and organize data about our world, has given us a greater sense of control and raised our expectations as human beings. However, all of this has done little to elevate our consciousness or consciences. While we can see more of our world and gaze further into the universe than at any other time in history, our capacity to transcend the limitations of our corporeality and materiality has only diminished.
For believers, faith enables them to reach out for Godliness, for the perennial, transcendental, sublime and beautiful. There is no doubt that throughout human history religion has been a powerful instigator of change - in fact, religion has been responsible for truly transformative moments in human history. Not too many forces in history have had religion's power to inspire, motivate and inform. Even in the largely secular Western academy, many social theorists have recognized the positive and, in my view, necessary role that religion ought to play in remedying many of the ailments of modernity.
In the modern (or postmodern) era, human life has been enriched by many advances that have brought comfort and safety to our bodies but, at the same time, infected our souls with the restlessness that comes from loss of purpose and lack of certitude. Scepticism and deconstructionism have liberated the human mind from numerous self-imposed limitations but imprisoned the soul within the confines of empiricism.
Modernity has uprooted the human soul, but for those who are still able to believe, religion can provide a much-needed anchor. Our faith in the objectivity of the scientific method has given us unprecedented control and mastery over our physical existence, but this control has done little to address the fact that we are, essentially, subjective beings, and that many of our challenges are metaphysical in nature.
The Exploitation of Religion
Overcoming the restlessness and anxieties of the modern age does not mean escaping to religion as an ephemeral and cursory infusion of mindless happiness into a structurally unhappy situation. For me as a Muslim, my faith allows for the pursuit of happiness and, at the same time, for the coming to terms with my mortality.
I think that, for many believers, religious belief is a form of empowerment against the greatest oppressor of all, which is death. Empowerment against the absoluteness and finality of death does not necessarily amount to passivity and resignation, and indeed, it can inspire the exact opposite. Moreover, the transience of life can tempt one to become concerned solely with self-happiness and to disregard the happiness of others. In the Islamic faith, one's fate in the afterlife is, in good measure, a reflection of how one treated others in this earthly life.
I do not doubt that there are believers who use religion as a vehicle for moral banality, apathy and even nihilism. And I do not doubt that their form of religiously rationalized happiness is more a hypnotic, vegetative state than an objective to be deliberately pursued through a dynamic engagement with divinity. Islam, like all systems of faith, can be used to make pain more bearable, or to mitigate the harshness of suffering. And indeed, Islamic theology does place a heavy emphasis on patience and perseverance before hardships, and on not giving in to despair or despondency (al-Sabr 'ala al-Nawa'ib wa al-Shada'id).
Resisting hopelessness and enduring life's trials and tribulations is a moral virtue and a sign of a strong faith. Some Muslims do use the affectations of pious endurance in order to justify moral indifference and apathy, but this is a misuse and corruption of religion, and not a necessary consequence of it. This kind of corruption of religious doctrine is most often used not to perpetuate a false notion of pious happiness, but to justify the continuation of impious misconduct and the miseries that are its result.
For Muslims who have a proper understanding of their religion, and who are true believers - and by true believers, I do not mean those who indulge in the affectations of belief, but those who feel anchored, inspired, and empowered by their faith - for these believers, happiness can only be attained by resisting the Jahiliya within and the Jahiliya without. For these Muslims, the engagement with the Divine is translated into a dynamic of beauty, peace, balance, mercy and love, and this dynamic is a vigorous path to empowerment, enlightenment and happiness.
Misusing the doctrine of fate to justify resignation and passivity before oppression or injustice is not the worst kind of corruption of the Islamic faith. Much worse is using Islam itself to perpetuate a state of Jahiliya in which the religion is usurped and turned into an instrument of hatred, bigotry, prejudice, ignorance, suffering and ugliness.
The exploitation of Islam to perpetuate values or conditions contrary to Godliness is a contradiction in terms and an abomination. As a matter of conviction, to use religion to perpetuate conditions that are theologically associated with godlessness, or the absence of Godliness, is offensive. As a Muslim, I believe that the light of God, and indeed the light of Islam, embody and are embodied by the values of beauty, peace, tranquillity and love. When Islam is exploited to justify the opposite conditions, this is akin to the perpetuation of Jahiliya in the name of Islam. The illuminations of God cannot coexist with the darkness of Jahiliya.
To put this in theological terms, God has made it a Divine purpose to endow human beings with joy and happiness; therefore, to exploit God's message in order to perpetuate misery or suffering is, to say the least, deeply problematic. Similarly, the Qur'an proclaims that God has ordained the dignity of all human beings, and so, in principle, the Divine cannot be used to justify the perpetuation of indignities or the degradation and humiliation of human beings (Q. 17:70).
Nevertheless, there can be no denying that all religions have been exploited in ways that are fundamentally at odds with their tenets. At the most basic level, the most persistent, religiously inspired failure of happiness occurs when faith is used to preach hatred and the demonization of the other. Religiously inspired hatred is in itself a form of jahiliyya because, fundamentally, it exploits the Divine - the embodiment of mercy, compassion and love - to erase the vestiges of divinity. Exploiting the authority of God to degrade and devalue others is most often a product of the twin problems of lack of critical insight into the self and lack of empathetic knowledge of the other, however the other is defined.
Any kind of fair knowledge of the other is very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain without critical self-perception and introspection. It is fairly easy to turn a critical gaze on people who are different, especially if they happen to be powerless or weak. As the Prophet Muhammad taught, the struggle to liberate the self from the oppressiveness of ignorance is harder than any effort to liberate oneself from the domination of others. Hence, living persistently and patiently to sacrifice the ego for the love of God is more challenging than sacrificing the body in death for God's sake.
Similarly, to come to know and truly achieve understanding of the other is infinitely harder than simply identifying and condemning what the other represents. Indeed, the Prophet acknowledged that a moral person should be preoccupied with his or her own faults instead of finding faults in others. Often people demonize what is alien to them not because of any real assessment of the threat posed by the other, but because of their own insecurities and self-inflicted fears.
Without introspection, we are always at risk of projecting our own insecurities and fears onto others and, then, unleashing our hatred and bigotry on the demonized constructs of the other that we invented.
Knowing the Other, Knowing Oneself
I emphasize this point because of the extent to which the Qur'an focuses on the role of social intercourse and understanding as necessary values in facilitating human happiness. According to the Qur'an, becoming trapped in a state of social enmity and rancour is equivalent to the corrupting of the earth (Fasad fi al-'Ard), and achieving social intercourse and understanding (Ta'aruf) and amicability (Ta’aluf) are pursuits of Divinity (see Q. 2:27, 205, 251; 7:56; 13:25; 23:71; 28:83; 30:41; 49:13).
This is a normative Shari'a value of supreme importance; to obtain knowledge of the other is an act of Divinity and beauty, while to fail to understand and to fall back on anxieties and fears is ugliness and the corruption of the Divine presence. Cycles of reciprocated fears lead only to a spiralling descent into a thoroughly corrupted earth - an earth without Divine presence, and a world drowning in pain and misery.
Importantly, those who have expended a serious amount of energy studying any of the major religious, moral, or intellectual traditions in the world quickly realize that these traditions have survived and spread because of the significant contributions they have made to humanity. Put differently, the traditions that have little to offer humanity - the traditions that have primarily contributed cruelty and suffering, such as fascism, colonialism, or communism - do not persist for long. This socio-historical reality is powerfully captured by the Qur'an when it says (13:17):
"This is how God determines truth from falsehood. The froth in due time disappears, but that which is useful to human beings remains on the earth. This is how God sets forth the precepts of wisdom."
The froth that duly disappears is composed of sparkling but short-lived creeds of anger or hate that endure only as long as good people do not resist them. But to demonize any of the major religious traditions in general and Abrahamic traditions in particular, is not possible without an astoundingly crude and uninformed reading of history.
Although charged political interests, and reciprocal cycles of violence and hate, act as powerful disincentives, those carrying a moral vision must, nevertheless, transcend their immediate contexts and act on their moral obligations towards humanity and God. In my view, it is imperative that communities of faith not succumb to the temptations of hate, and that they insist on a common human venture seeking moral advancement and greater fulfilment of Divinity on earth.
But doing so mandates what may be described as the constituent elements of such a moral enterprise: an empathetic engagement with the other, transparency and honesty in discourse, and self-criticism. Without these three basic elements, it is extremely difficult to generate the trust and respect necessary for knowing the other and joining in a common enterprise. Put differently, these three constituent elements are necessary for achieving the Qur'anic ideals of Ta’aruf (knowledge and understanding of the other) and Ta'aluf (social amicability).
The Qur'an sets out an effective moral agenda for achieving the ideals of Ta’aruf and Ta'aluf among both Muslims and human beings in general. The Qur'an starts the discourse by addressing conflict resolution between Muslims. It emphasizes the essential brotherhood of all Muslims and urges Muslims to make peace between disputing Muslims while persevering in the way of justice. Justice mandates adherence to the dual imperatives of impartiality and equity.
Addressing itself to "those who believe," the Qur'an proceeds to put forth the steps necessary for peaceful conflict resolution and adherence to the mandates of justice. It commands "the believers" not to mock one another and not to indulge in name-calling and slander against one another. The Qur'an then instructs Muslims on ethical personal traits: Muslims are to refrain from dealing in suspicions instead of verified facts; they are to refrain from backstabbing and from speaking without knowledge about other human beings; and they are to refrain from spying on and prying into the affairs of others.
After setting out this ethical course of conduct, the Qur'an shifts from addressing Muslims in particular, to addressing all human beings. It states: "O people, we have created you from male and female, and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you will come to know one another, and that who has greater integrity has indeed a greater degree of honour with God. Surely, God is all-knowing and most wise." (Q. 49:9-13)
Equally important, the Qur'an explicates a moral and sociological principle of grave significance - it states that diversity is a principle of creation. People are different and will remain so until the end of time, and in a most intriguing statement, the Qur'an asserts that if God had so willed, human beings would have ceased to be different. But they will not, and "for that God created them" (Q. 11:118)
The idea that diversity is a purpose of creation is intriguing but also challenging. If diversity is one of the purposes of creation, then far from being resisted or mistrusted, it must be embraced and promoted. Historically, Muslim scholars to a large extent accepted the inevitability of diversity, and this was one of the factors that influenced the practice of tolerance in the Islamic tradition. Compared to the prevailing paradigms of the pre-modern age, the Muslim civilization has been exceptionally tolerant of the other. In recent times, some pundits, largely motivated by religious and political bigotry, have tried to cast doubt on the historical fact of tolerance in the Islamic civilization. Suffice it to say, however, that in the pre-modern era, Muslim minorities were systematically annihilated in Europe and Africa, while non-Muslim minorities in Muslim territories survived.
The Qur'anic challenge is, in light of enormous diversity, for human beings to get to know each other. This does not mean inventing an artificial construct of the other and then coming to know that construct. And it does not mean that regardless of the actions of the other, the other's ethics and actions must be deemed acceptable and legitimate. While recognizing the legitimacy of a considerable amount of difference, the Qur'an insists on objective, universal moral and ethical standards, encapsulated in the ideas of equity and justice.
Furthermore, the Qur'an considers particular actions such as spying, backstabbing and slander to be inconsistent with the ethical precepts of a just and equitable existence (Q. 4:112; 49:12). The acceptance of diversity and pluralism and genuine knowledge of the other is a moral objective in and of itself, but it also serves an important functional purpose. Undertaking the social process of coming to know the other enables human beings to discover and learn to differentiate between the universal precepts of morality, on the one hand, and the relative and subjective experiences, on the other.
Claims of ontological or universal truth, whether based on reason or revelation, are not anathema to Islam. Indeed, the Qur'an recognizes certain ethical principles as universally applicable and pertinent. The Qur'an states, for instance: "And God does not desire for human beings to suffer injustice" (Q. 3:108). A statement such as this generates layers of meaning, but it is reasonable to conclude that, from an Islamic perspective, Muslims are encouraged to search for moral universals that could serve as shared and common goals with humanity at large.
This seems to me to be an essential characteristic of a universal religion that is addressed to humanity at large, and not to an exclusive cultural, social, or ethnic group. The Qur'an insists that it is the bearer of a message to all humankind and not to a particular tribe or race (Q. 38:87). Moreover, the Qur'an asserts that the Prophet Muhammad, and in fact the Qur'an itself, was sent to all peoples as a blessing and mercy (Q. 7:52, 203; 17:82; 21:107). The Qur'an also persistently emphasizes the ethical quality of mercy as a core attribute of God and as a fundamental and basic pursuit of Islam (Q. 12:111). The Qur'an informs human beings that God has decreed and mandated mercy even upon Himself and is therefore bound to extend it to human beings.
In the Qur'anic discourse, mercy and peace are inextricably linked - peace is a Divine mercy, and mercy is the bliss of peace. To comprehend and internalize God's mercy is to be in a blissful state of peace (for instance, see Q. 6:54; 27:77; 29:51; 45:20).This is at the very essence of the state of Divine beautification and of being filled with the goodness of the Divine, and having this quality manifest outwardly in everything a person does is known as Ihsan.
Ta'aruf (knowing the other) and Ta’aluf (social amicability) are great gifts of Divine mercy that lead to the grace of enjoying peace. But knowledge of the other is not possible without the grace of Ihsan, which calls on people to approach one another not just with mercy and sympathy, but with empathy and compassion.
In my view, to pursue the Qur'anic ideal of "knowing the other" requires not only a moral outlook that is empathetic towards the perceived other, but also, since the process is bound to be exceedingly difficult without transparency and honesty in discourse, a norm of self-critical humility. As generations of Muslim theologians have emphasized, self-critical humility is not only necessary for genuine self-knowledge; it is also fundamental to the ability to critically engage the other. Without self-critical engagement, it is inevitable that the other will become the object of numerous projections, and that this other will unwittingly become the scapegoat for ambiguous frustrations and fears embedded within the self. Critical self-knowledge as well as honesty in confronting one's own ambiguities is necessary if one is to avoid the risk of scapegoating and projecting onto the other one's own frustrations, failures and unhappiness.
In short, the process of Ta’aruf is not limited to learning about the other; rather it also requires learning about the self, and conscientious self-engagement is key for avoiding the all too familiar problem of inventing the other in an entirely self-serving way.
Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Omar and Azmeralda Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law and Chair of the Islamic Studies Interdepartmental Program at UCLA. His magnum opus, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the Modern Age, has just been published.