One of the biggest lessons to derive from Mandela's life is respect for humanity, which is at the core of Islamic principles
Muslims can draw many lessons from the life of Mandela
Of the many principles for which Nelson Mandela stood, his struggle against the apartheid regime was one. But it was not this that made him unique. In fact, Imam Abdullah Haron, a prominent Muslim cleric at the time, preceded him in this struggle in South Africa and died in prison in 1969 after being tortured by the apartheid regime.
Mandela stood for many other ideals, ones to which Muslims can relate.
He taught his people and the world how victors should forgive those who wronged them. He showed how leaders can help their people surpass the difficulties of the past to build a common future. We as Muslims tend to forget the words of Prophet Mohammed to the disbelievers of Quraysh who had tormented him and his companions. He said to them when they were completely at his mercy: “Go forth, for you are free.” This led them to enter Islam and take part in spreading its lofty values.
Another great principle was that Mandela was not merely concerned with his own people. He experienced the pain of oppressed people throughout the world, regardless of race, colour, nationality or religion. He supported the Palestinian cause, for example. He worked to resolve the conflict in Burundi that had led to a vast number of deaths and succeeded in bringing conflicting groups to an agreement.
This respect for humanity is at the core of Islamic values. We seem to have forgotten that the Prophet stood up when the funeral procession of a Jewish man passed. When they asked him why he was standing for a Jewish man, he replied: “Is it not a human soul?” We have also forgotten that he commended the Alliance of the Virtuous (hilf al fudhoul), a pre-Islamic pact made to support the oppressed. He said that if he was invited to make a similar pact again he would do so.
Mandela fought against racism, which he regarded as something despicable. He did not only oppose white racial discrimination against black people, but he taught black people not to reciprocate by showing racism towards whites.
The Prophet refused to consider people wronging us as a justification for aggression. He did not use the treachery of the tribes of Banu Qaynuqa and Banu Al Nadhair and the people of Khaybar as a justification for showing aggression to every Jew living in Medina. In fact, when he died, his shield was pawned to a Jewish man in exchange for food that he had bought from him. The Prophet did not refuse to have dealings with the man, nor did he regard it lawful to take the man’s property.
Mandela realised that hatred and racism had been the cause of his 27-year imprisonment. He thus decided to make racism the enemy and not the people who had the misfortune of believing in and spreading racist beliefs. He declared war on the disease itself and not on those suffering from it.
We have forgotten that the Prophet warned us against hatred and called it “the disease of nations”. He said: “The disease of previous nations has crept up upon you: envy and hatred. Truly, hatred is a razor: it shaves away not a person’s hair, but their religion.” We have also forgotten the Prophet’s words: “Honour those who sever ties with you, give to those who withhold from giving to you, and pardon those who wrong you.”
Mandela realised the importance of having a sound heart and that a person’s intellect alone is not capable of managing the affairs of this life if the heart is corrupt. If a person’s heart is corrupt, their intellect then becomes a cause of corruption everywhere. He said: “A sound intellect and a sound heart are always a great combination.”
We have overlooked that the Prophet said: “In the body is a lump of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound and if it is corrupt the whole body is corrupt. It is the heart.”
The first house that Mandela entered after spending 27 years in prison was the house of his Muslim friend, Dullah Omar. Omar was Mandela’s comrade in the struggle, and as a lawyer he advised and represented him. The fact that Mandela had attained fame and victory did not cause him to show arrogance to others based on false religiosity.
We have forgotten that after his victory at the Battle of Badr, the Prophet remembered Mutim bin Adi, a man who had not become Muslim but who had protected him from the non-believers on his return from Taif to Mecca. The Prophet said that had Mutim still been alive and had he interceded with him on behalf of the non-believers who had been taken prisoner at Badr, he would have honoured him by setting them free. We have also forgotten that the Prophet’s poet, Hassan bin Thabit, wrote a poem eulogising Mutim upon his death.
Mandela fought against those who fought, killed, oppressed and racially discriminated against his people. He took the path of armed struggle when he was forced to do so. However, he did not make killing and bloodshed a way of life. As soon as the regime accepted peaceful negotiations, he promised that fighting would stop.
The Prophet keenly accepted the peace agreement with Quraysh – Hudaybiyah Treaty – though it included unjust conditions, and despite resistance from some of his companions. He accepted these conditions because he knew that if his adversaries honoured the treaty, the phase of violent conflict would end and a new phase would begin in which he would be able to peacefully call people to Islam.
It was due to such principles that the world respected Mandela and was moved by his life and death. With such values we can have a role in benefiting the whole of humanity, and above all attain the pleasure of God and the Prophet.
Habib Ali Al Jifri is the founder and chairman of the board of Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi, a research institute that explores contemporary issues through a faith-based approach