x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

It takes sacrifice to be ethical

Sometimes you have to abandon something that is within reach to maintain the moral health of your inner constitution.

Nobody wants to hear about sacrifice. Especially on a Saturday morning when you just want to kick back with the paper and enjoy the comforts you've accumulated.

But being ethical requires a bit of sacrifice, just as having more than you need doesn't mean you're generous.

Next week we celebrate Eid al Adha, literally the festival of the sacrifice. Traditionally, people offer an animal for sacrifice and give a significant portion of it away as a sign of thanksgiving. Sheep cost money. They're not cheap. But you do this deed of charity, which Allah loves, and you let go of some of what you hold dear to prove your love to Him; all in His name.

But we must consider other nuances of sacrifice this year. We all, or at least many of us, like to consider ourselves ethical people, perhaps even moral people. But ethics and morality go 360 degrees. It is not only some personal, intrinsic intransitive quality of who I am myself; it has just as much to do with those transitive aspects of how I treat others. One's treatment of other people is the proving ground of ethics.

I recall here the lesson of the Prophet Mohammed, who, when told by his companions how impressed they were with a certain woman who was so devout and proliferate in her fasting and prayer, said Allah would not accept her prayers. His companions were shocked. The reason, he said, was because she treated her neighbour with abuse.

Let us not idealise and abstract these parables. How do we treat our neighbour at the desk next to us in the office, or other people in our daily dealings? Do we treat them as objects, as opportunities? Do we maintain a semblance of decency until the moment when we can cash in and step on them for fun and profit? Will we treat them like a paper cup at the water cooler, and crush them before tossing them in the garbage once we've had our benefit?

Here is where being an ethical person requires sacrifice. Having an opportunity in my reach does not mean I'm free to grab it regardless of human consequences.

The Prophet said it was not polytheism that he feared for his fellows. This was puzzling because they lived in an environment corrupted by idolatry. Instead, he said, it was that the gates of the material world be opened to them. This was even more puzzling because they lived in an environment of severe poverty.

The sages of Islam have always said desire for the material world is at the heart of every wrong action. It is certainly greed and avarice that lead us to take advantage of others, to use them, undercut them, mislead them. Lust for money and position can cause a man to do many an ugly deed. To be ethical, to be moral, to be human – no matter how carefully maintained and shiny one's image – means nothing if the core is rotten. Ethical behaviour emanates from within; it is not a veneer.

Sometimes you have to abandon something that is within reach to maintain the moral health of your inner constitution. In our corporate-industrial, bottom-line, "do unto others before they do unto you" world, we tend to think that the only opportunity you don't take is the one that's not in your reach.

This year, can we think twice before we grab at things? Can we make a small sacrifice for the betterment of our own souls, for the well-being of our fellow man?

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