Strangers: An Ethical Framework of Gharabah | Part I

This article is the first of a two-part series constructing an Islamic ethical framework around the concept of “strangers”. You can read Part II here.

Aseel Azab-Osman

This conversation starts with a simple premise: as human beings, whether consciously or not, we tend to historicise. We try to make sense of our current moment within larger contexts and timeframes, and we do so by relying on the sources of knowledge, experiences, traditions, and practices that we trust. In their own right, Muslims have consistently engaged the vast Islamic tradition to make sense of their contemporary moment, as well as relate it to the early community and historical context that the Prophet ﷺ and his companions occupied. This naturally leads to the question of how we as Muslims can best conduct ourselves in our given context and develop appropriate ethical practices. 

Thus, when a Muslim reads the following verse and reflects on its meaning:

ظَهَرَ الْفَسَادُ فِي الْبَرِّ وَالْبَحْرِ بِمَا كَسَبَتْ أَيْدِي النَّاسِ لِيُذِيقَهُم بَعْضَ الَّذِي عَمِلُوا لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ

Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned so He may let them taste part of [the consequence of] what they have done that perhaps they will return.

Al-Rum:41

I imagine that they will be asking themselves a set of questions, the answer to which will vary according to their context. What forms of corruption are manifesting in my surroundings? What types of harm and injustice have I perhaps contributed to? What can I do to orient myself away from these practices and return to God? 

The material we choose to draw on for this engagement is crucial, because it sets the contours for how we define the ethical problems of our age and how to respond to them. Eschatology — the branch of Islamic thought concerned with the signs of the end of time — is one such resource. Across the centuries of Islamic history, Muslim scholars and individual believers alike have opined about whether they were indeed living in eschatological times. I do not make any claims about how close we are to the end, but I do think there is a clear correlation in the eschatological traditions between an increase in corrupt practices and the nearing of the end. Therefore, to construct an ethical framework that seriously meets the challenge of our moment, we must draw on the relevant conceptual resources. 

One specific eschatological ḥadīth provides us a rich conceptual avenue to start:  

بدأ الإسلام غريبا وسيعود غريبا، فطوبى للغرباء.
Islam began as strange, and will become once again strange; so blessed be the strangers.1 

This hadith is frequently invoked to imply correctness; if someone is criticised for expressing an Islamic opinion or practice, they seek solace in identifying as the strangers foreseen by the Prophet, regardless of the validity of their actual statement. However, to understand the concept of strangers as more than just difference requires an inversion of the way we typically relate to this ḥadīth.

Portrait of a Stranger 

The figure of the stranger has been known to mankind perhaps since time immemorial. It appears frequently in Near Eastern cultures, particularly with respect to rules of moral conduct.2 The Biblical tradition addresses the duties of mercy and hospitality towards strangers, and the Old Testament particularly reminds the Israelites “that they themselves once lived a life of misery and oppression, languishing in a foreign and hostile land.”3

Several prophets have been strangers for a part of their journey. Ibrahīm (AS) parts ways with his idolatrous community and establishes Tawḥīd (monotheism) “as a stranger in a foreign land.”4 Yūsuf (AS) is estranged from his family for years, and experiences both trials and blessings throughout his stay in Egypt. Mūsā (AS) escapes Egypt when he is warned the people are conspiring to kill him and dwells as a stranger in Madyan for at least a decade. Yūnus (AS) is forsaken when he abandons his people, is devoured by the whale, repents, is forgiven, and is sent to another community. 

In his work on medieval Muslim societies, Frank Rosenthal argues that, ideally, no Muslim was ever a stranger in the land of Islam, since the marks of belonging were drawn differently than they are by nationalities and state borders today.5 Yet the figure of the stranger continued to offer generative food for contemplation and expression. The stranger was pitied for his weakness and lack of protection. An individual was afforded dignity and respect amongst his family and people, and found nothing but a humbled status, vulnerability, and more often than not, poverty, in strange lands.

On the other hand, one reason for which one could become a stranger was to escape tyranny or injustice at home. Another was to search for better economic and living prospects; George Simmel, in his sociological essay on the stranger, notes that: “Throughout the history of economics the stranger everywhere appears as the trader, or the trader as stranger.”6 It seems from the medieval literary sources, however, that most strangers lapsed into poverty.  

Alongside this territorial definition of the stranger, another spatial understanding endured. Travel was used as a metaphor to describe humanity’s temporary stay on earth. In that sense, Muslims specifically, and all of humanity in general, were to be strangers “always and everywhere.”7 Rosenthal traces this general principle back to the inward religiosity cultivated by 

ascetics and mystics [who] adopted it not only as a metaphor but also as a lifestyle. If life on earth was a journey, this fact had to be made apparent by constant travel, and if, further, this meant being a stranger, its outward manifestation was for Sufis to present themselves as strangers. They should not stay in one place. They should even become fugitives, so as to avoid contamination by the worldly concerns of the homebound.8

To be a stranger, in this reading, is to be a stranger from this world, because one actually belongs to another permanent one; to exercise a deliberate distance from the pleasures of the world, and instead to dedicate oneself fully to God. A Muslim, in this conception, is always already a stranger as much as they are in this world, but not of it. 

There is more to the stranger for our purposes, however. Seeing Muslims as always already strangers does not map well onto the ḥadīth. If that was the case, then identifying Islamic practices with strangeness would have been invariable throughout history, unlike the two segments the ḥadīth describes. In the words of the Prophet ﷺ, Islam began as gharīb, and it began as such with him and the handful of companions who believed in his message. The designation was not one of identity, migration, and occupation of strange lands. The majority of the early Muslims were Arabs, natives of the tribes of Makkah. They did not simply orient themselves away from the pleasures of the world. Nor did they, like the later ascetic, travel as nomads, enacting what it meant to be a stranger to the entirety of the world. The early Muslims remained in Makkah for the first 10 years of the propagation of Islam. The first migration to Ethiopia was a very short episode in the 23-year span of revelation, and even with the more substantial migration to Madinah, they were not strangers in foreign terrains. Nor were they necessarily on the margins of their communities; the Muslims varied in degrees of wealth and social status. 

What then was the gharābah, or strangeness, of nascent Islam?9 In the first instance, the Prophet ﷺ was a stranger when he received transcendent revelation, an unusual epistemic source for his community. Yet the content of revelation was not entirely foreign. It had precedent not only in scriptures of the People of the Book — with whom the Arabs had considerable interaction — but also in the larger cosmology of Divine revelation, which the Qur’an frequently invokes as carrying signs for those who contemplate. It wasn’t the novelty of his ﷺ revelation that made him a stranger, but that revelation oriented him away from his people’s practices, and that by questioning the legitimacy of their idolatrous practices, he forced his people to confront themselves and the constructed nature of those practices. He ﷺ exercised a distance from their religion that put its day-to-day mundanity into question.  

The more revelation the Prophet ﷺ received, the more his practice sought to deconstruct and denormalise the customs of pagan Arabia. It took the form of calling them out more frequently on their idolatry, from which exploitative and harmful practices often stemmed. More and more verses condemned prevalent practices of greed, the lack charitable giving and wealth redistribution, the usurpation of the rights and inheritance of orphans, the burying alive of new-born females, discrimination against non-Arabs, and other injustices.

Islam and the early Muslims started out as gharīb in that they estranged themselves from their surroundings and confronted them where necessary. Although they were part of that pagan community, they exercised a distance from its practices, defamiliarising those actions they once did naturally and with little thought. They deeply examined the harmful consequences of their inherited practices, and questioned the logic by which these practices were legitimated. 

Defining Strangeness 

Building on this imagery, I would like to summarise the practices I believe to be central to a stranger subjectivity today. These fall into two categories: their comportment, and the effect of that comportment on their surroundings. 

Their comportment: 

  1. The stranger is always seeing things as if for the first time. Much as strangers must assess the unfamiliar terrains or communities they stumble upon with novel eyes, so does a stranger amongst their community approach the unfamiliar with a strange distance, in order to more profoundly see and deeply understand where these practices came from, what sanctions them, and whether they cause benefit or harm.
  2. Strangers are at the threshold of their community, constantly measuring the practices in their milieu with the yardstick of revelation. They defamiliarise the familiar to ask: what forms of jāhiliyyah10 are prevalent in my environment today and how might I be participating in it? How close am I to the prophetic ideal? How can I draw closer? 
  3. Because they do not have the privilege of familiarity and believing they know their surroundings comfortably well, strangers are invariably slow in their actions. They must put a great deal of thought and investigation into their decisions before making them.

Their effect on others:

  1. The stranger’s presence “embodies otherness […] upsetting [the] previously unproblematic existence” of those amongst whom they dwell. 
  2. Their presence, practices, and livelihood raise concerns about established socio-economic relations, their viability, and their stability.

How do these qualities coalesce to create an ethical practice? In an essay on the sociology of knowledge, Tibor Dessewffy identifies a lack of customs as the one aspect that drastically differentiates a stranger’s experience from their former everyday life: 

We can no longer rely on the routines that help us through the labyrinth of everyday communication; the automatisms that smoothly control our behaviour are no longer operative. The newcomer, from the moment he realises that he has fallen into a foreign environment, becomes tense and alert: he must begin to learn.11

This emphasis on alertness, the need to learn, and the inability to fall back on routine develops in the stranger a more perceptive, critical, and intimate knowledge of their surroundings and the often invisible relations that constitute their social reality. I take this deeper way of seeing and exercising baṣīrah (discernment) to develop a dynamic engagement with our surroundings of the kind the Qur’an exhorts us towards: 

أفلا تبصرون؟ أفلا تتفكرون؟ أفلا تعقلون؟

Do you not then see? Do you not reflect? Do you not understand?

To be continued


Aseel Azab Osman is a PhD student in Islamic Studies at Duke University. Her research interests include Islamic ethics, deconstructing the ‘secular’ and political thought.

Notes:

  1. Sahih Muslim 145.
  2. Ellul, Joseph. “‘The Stranger Who Visited Me’ The Concept of Hospitality in Islam.” Le Migrazioni Umane Nel XXI Secolo, no. 1, Feb. 2014, pp. 43–46., http://www.oikonomia.it/images/pdf/2014/febbraio/09_Joseph%20Ellul_studi.pdf.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid, 44.
  5. Ibid, 36.
  6.  Simmel, Georg. “The Stranger.” InfoAmerica, pp. 1–3, http://www.infoamerica.org/documentos _pdf/simmel01.pdf.
  7. Ellul, 55.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Simmel, 1.
  10. Qur’anic use of the term contrasts it with Islam, justice, and makes it synonymous with doing injustice to oneself by worshipping false deities, rejecting revelation, or otherwise incurring God’s anger and desertion.
  11. Dessewffy, Tibor. “Strangerhood Without Boundaries: An Essay in the Sociology of Knowledge.” Poetics Today, vol. 17, no. 4, 1996, pp. 599–615.

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