Recognising Ourselves in Others

Ruqaiyah Hibell gave a presentation at the |Markfield Institute on 23 January 2020 on this topic. Below is her speech.

The focus of this reflection is about not seeing others as ‘other’ to ourselves and to discuss diversity, inclusion and the positive benefits of difference.

As a Muslim, I would like to start from the basis of my faith, by offering a verse of the Qur’ān, from Surah Al-Hujarat (49:13) which sums up the embrace of diversity within Islam that manifests inclusion and sets the standards for inclusivity within the faith. It fosters a culture of inclusion.

“Oh Mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other. Indeed the most noble of you is the most righteous of you. Allah is knowing and acquainted.”

From these verses we learn that while God is one, He loves diversity, engagement and cohesion. In this way, unity, diversity and inclusion are intertwined, they cannot be separated from each other. God is not asking us all to serve him in the same way. There are many different routes and paths towards God. According to the Qur’ānic narrative, God’s will has been to promote a united humanity. God reveals this through His chosen messengers and the revelations embedded in scripture. Every negative form of discrimination, separation, exclusion, or division is negated by God. Domination of some portion of humanity over others is forbidden. Unjust exploitation of humanity or creation is rejected. The Qur’ān has strictly forbidden division and commended unity: “And hold fast, all together by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves… (3:103).

Islam recognised the difficulty of achieving such unity, and asserts that real unity can only be achieved through recognition of human diversity. Islam clearly acknowledges the divine mystery of God that has willed that humanity be diverse in religion, conviction and persuasion: “To each among you, We have prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If God so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you: So strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you is to God” (5:48). Islam’s message of unity, then, conveys the divine desire for all humanity – in its diversity – to share and grow in the consciousness of a single humanity under one God. We can be faithful to our own religious traditions and still be a great blessing to others.

Islam’s religious tolerance has allowed theological, political, philosophical, legal, ethical, and mystical orientations to abound within Muslim communities. It thrives because it energises and refuses to allow the faith to be marginalised into privatised and ritualised forms. In each of these orientations is an implicit desire for the ultimate unity of all, seeing the oneness of God, but also an explicit acknowledgement of the ongoing reality of diversity of ideas and projects.

Within us all are unique sparks of divinity. We can recognise the traces of God within the strangers we encounter as well as those who are familiar to us. God informs us in the Qur’ān that we are his signs on the earth. Differences of language and heritage between human beings are seen in the Qur’ān as a sign of God (Ayat Allah), just as differences between the heavens and the earth and between night and day are also signs of God. The implication is that such differences are signs of God’s overwhelming powers of creation. This is detailed in the Qur’ān:

There are signs on the earth for people of certainty. And in yourselves as well. Do you not then see? (51: 20-21). And among His signs is the creation of heaven and earth, and the living creatures He has scattered through them and He has the power to gather them together when He wills (42:29).

As living signs of the creator, we each represent different aspects of the divine. Muslims are encouraged to learn more about God through understanding the names that describe His attributes. These are typically described in Arabic as asma al-husna, or the 99 names of Allah. Although the names to describe God are not finite, or confined to 99, naming attributes allows us to gain a better understanding of His awe and majesty, and allows us to contemplate and to ponder. So as signs of God, we may contain within ourselves one or more of these divine characteristics. The best known of these are ar-Rahman and ar-Raheem, the most compassionate and the most merciful, that commences all but one of the surahs (collections of signs) within the Qur’ān. The names of God embody many qualities, for example, mercy, compassion, justice, forgiveness, sustenance, the witness, the protecting friend, the guide, the light and so forth. Trying to realise and absorb these qualities are a means to draw closer to the Unknowable, and a vehicle for self-transformation.

To know ourselves is the first determinant of being able to understand and empathise with others. As Deepak Chopra reminds us, it is our calling to determine what our purpose in life is, and to make the most of the unique and special gifts that are bestowed on each of us. We each possess a special gift that no one else possesses in the same way or can do as well as us and life can be about unfolding and revealing this gift and then applying it for the benefit of humanity. We get to know ourselves better through the contrasts that we witness between ourselves and others.

We can learn a lot about ourselves when we meet people of other nations and faiths: That there is no superiority of one people over another – we are all derived from the same family – we come from a single source – the human race - and through our encounters with a diversity of people we learn that God lives within others whose lives are quite different to our own, and any elevation achieved in our relationship with God stems from the effort we put into developing closeness to God, to our ability to serve God and not from our genetic heritage and inheritance.

When we meet people who are unfamiliar to ourselves it is easy to operate on a basis of stereotypes and prejudices – mistrust/dislike hate is much easier to germinate when someone or something is strange and may appear to threaten who we think we, unsettling our sense of self. By making the effort to reach out and know someone – we are able to see that person for their individual humanity and witness their uniqueness which helps to dispel inaccurate and unfounded assumptions and dispel prejudice. Coming to know people from other backgrounds, faith and cultures can therefore lead to states of expansion, by becoming enlarged by the experience of encountering difference.

It is not a cliché to say that we are living through difficult and uncertain times. Over the last few years in Britain division has increased exponentially, and has filtered into many aspects of life, and with this infiltration fear has become the default position for many people when viewing the world. When fear and uncertainty proliferate, some people otherwise considered as sober and rationale seek solutions in magical thinking. Here, for the generations weaned on Harry Potter, psychics, fortune tellers and astrologists are now flourishing, creating booming businesses as people seek out ways of ensuring that certainty and different paths to prosperity are going to be a future feature of their lives.
Multitudes of people have arrived from across the world to live here in Britain. The Roman Catholic Irish mystic, Lorna Byrne speaks about the gathering angels, whose work it is to create rich and diverse societies by encouraging people from across the globe to settle in new lands and build new lives which intersect with the already settled resident populations. We witness massive and unprecedented large scale movements of people across the world, of treacherous and hazardous journeys undertaken to reach our lands, and this bringing together of human diversity is all part of God’s plan. While we hear a lot of talk about integration we may experience and witness less of it in our own lives and in the circles of people who cross our horizons. Self-limitations within cultural frames of reference can request us to reflect on our own horizons and how we can take steps to expand our frames of reference and this can be supported by engaging more deeply with people offering different world views to those we hold ourselves.
The late German philosopher, Hans-Georg Gadamer, argued that people possess historically-effected consciousness and that they are embedded in the particular history and culture that has shaped them. However, such historical consciousness is not an object over and against existence, but “a stream in which we move and participate, in every act of understanding.” Therefore, people do not approach any particular issue without a form of pre-comprehension set via this historical stream. The persuasion from which an interpretation arises, establishes "prejudices" that affect comprehension. For Gadamer, these prejudices are not something that hampers the ability to interpret, but is integral to the authentic being, and forms “the basis of our being able to understand history.” Gadamer criticized Enlightenment thinkers for harboring a "prejudice against prejudices".
By way of contradistinction, it can be argued that in order for growth to occur prejudice must be challenged where it arises to allow expansion to manifest. Prejudice is by its very nature constricting. For Gadamer, interpreting a situation involves ‘a fusion of horizons.’ Both the text and the interpreter find themselves within a particular historical tradition, or “horizon.” Each horizon is expressed through language, and both the text and interpreter are integral to history and language. This appropriation of language is the common ground between interpreter and text that facilitates understanding. As an interpreter seeks to understand a text, a common horizon emerges. This fusion of horizons does not equate to fully understanding an objective meaning but occurs as “an event in which a world opens itself” to the person.” This results in a deeper understanding of the issue.
How do we deal with horizons - are they self-limiting and narrow or are we able to expand and open our minds and hearts to engage with the personalities, and lives of those we see in some ways as different to ourselves? When we meet and socialise with people whose lives differ from our own possibly in terms of other cultures, faiths, genders, and ethnicities, beliefs, and abilities we can start to explore difference, and the difference we first thought we observed between ourselves, may meld into awareness of our shared commonalities, an awareness develops of where sameness arises, our similarities, our common hopes and goals, how our shared humanity manifests. Our connectivity is a way to assess what exactly we mean to each other.

Cultures and identities that are confident and self-assured have the capacity to absorb and include those who are newly arrived and who may originate from different belief systems, faiths, cultures and parts of the world. We need to build confident vibrant communities – not isolated islands of fear and despair. Citing a contemporary conundrum leading increasingly to isolation, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes the rise of the individualised selfie phenomenon – as social media absorbs more and more of our time and fractures our capacity to interact with others. Sherry Turkle’s book: ‘Alone Together – Why we expect more from technology and less from each other’ – brilliantly summarises this growing trend to allow social media and robotics to encroach more deeply into our lives and to isolate us from each other. Turkle notes how human qualities are assigned to objects while a growing trend sees us content to treat each other as things. To counter such trends, Sacks advocates replacing the self with the other. So the focus moves away from that of the individual to a centre on others, on collectives, on community building and developing our lives in service to others. Pope Francis in his Laudato Si address stated that technological products are not neutral they create a framework which conditions lifestyles and shapes social possibilities, along the lines dictated by powerful groups, thereby, providing decisions about the types of societies we want to build.

Islam emphasises the concept of khidmah which becomes embedded as a spiritually infused form of self-growth and development through living a life in service to others. This in itself generates reward when undertaken solely to seek the pleasure of God and not for self-aggrandisement or praise. The Qur’ān instructs us: “Let there be a community among you that calls for what is good, urges what is right and forbids what is wrong; those are the ones who attain success (3:104).” The idea of balance/mizan, or wasatiyyah/moderation, characterises such an approach, enabling concepts to be considered that offer a higher quality of life rather than increased standards of living. Around us we observe that avarice and greed are the root causes of environmental degradation and human debasement.

The human experience begs for belonging and connection – for a place to be authentic, and safe in that authenticity, for a sense of purpose and direction. Society needs to create inclusive spaces and work to break down barriers that prevent inclusion – such as, racism, sexism, fear of disability, poverty, ethnicity, religion and gender persuasion. It is incumbent on ourselves to find out about marginalised groups of people and educate ourselves about their lives, their needs, their hopes, their suffering. People of faith must work towards creating communities of acceptance. To accept people in all their diversity is to follow a path to God. When we exclude and marginalise by creating an ‘other,’ a person whose full humanity, whose being we fail to acknowledge and recognise we diminish not only those we are ‘othering,’ but ourselves, and until we learn to accept through self-expansion, through our own personal ability to develop and grow spiritually, by attempting to tred upon and walk along a Godly path that accepts diversity in all its myriad forms, if we fail to do this we are isolating ourselves from God. Above all, we need to show respect to people others do not notice, those who are overlooked.

Since 2007 one of my roles has been to work with a national project, The New Muslims Project as a researcher, and I have met people of every faith and no faith and who all in turn have embraced Islam or have considered adopting Islam as their stepping stones or path to God. In the cases that I have come across many have experienced some form of social rejection, varying in differing levels of intensity from their families, work colleagues, friends or communities. Psychologists acknowledge that social rejection causes trauma and pain. Memories of such social rejection can retain the same pain and trauma that the initial experience of rejection held – thereby, creating and reliving the harm repeatedly. When social rejection becomes a frequent experience, a trauma response takes place in the brain to perceptions of rejection. Scientific studies have shown that social rejection impacts and lights up the same parts of the brain that physical pain and trauma occupy. This can lead to states of disassociation and anomie – where a person does not connect with others, and considers that they do not belong or find acceptance within the social grouping that have rejected them or the new social formations that they attempt to penetrate. This can lead to what the French sociologist and philosopher Jean Baudrillard termed ‘alterity’ – the state of being ‘other’ or different. To counter such adversity one of the ways inclusion may be generated is via involvement in charitable organisations and voluntary work, to find entry points into established communities.

Some Benefits of Diversity and Inclusion
Here it is apt to mention some of the positive and practical implications of accepting others and embracing diversity. Studies from Harvard Business School found people with greater intercultural exposure and deeper intercultural relationships become more creative as a result. Creativity stems from the mental flexibility that regular, meaningful interactions with someone from a different culture can foster. Diversity of thought, or cognitive diversity, can obtain the optimum out of different perspectives or information processing. Research published in Harvard Business Review (HBR) discovered that teams with the highest levels of diversity within knowledge processes and perspectives completed their challenges fastest, while the less cognitively diverse teams either took significantly longer, or lapsed completely.
Nonetheless, cognitive diversity has to be actively sought, encouraged and maintained. The above mentioned research noted the importance of avoiding functional bias, by not always recruiting the “culture fits” for an organization, but including ‘cultural additions’ as well. It was recognized as vital to understand that cognitive diversity is rapidly stifled by the pressure to conform. So, the research found that in such instances fostering psychological safety is vital if people are able to retain the confidence to be themselves, to bring unique perspectives, and to uncover the perspective no one else observes. Or as HBR authors, Alison Reynolds and David Lewis proposed:
“…make sure your recruitment processes identify difference and recruit for cognitive diversity. And when you face a new, uncertain, complex situation, and everyone agrees on what to do, find someone who disagrees and cherish them.” 2009 analysis of 506 companies found firms with more racial or gender diversity had more sales revenue, more customers, and greater profits.

In a similar vein, a 2016 analysis of 20,000+ firms in 91 countries found companies employing more female executives were more profitable. A 2011 study showed management teams with wider ranges of educational and work backgrounds produced more innovative products. Part of the reason for such success noted that while members of homogenous teams may agree more quickly with one another, arrive at solutions more easily, and feel more effective on the surface – all these things actually tend to result in worse overall performance. Being confronted with diversity of thought and culture on a daily basis forces us to reframe, reconsider, and rework our approaches to overcoming challenges. This effort and discussion, when undertaken productively and with consideration, is specifically what drives diverse teams to produce better results for their companies.

A study of the CIA, detailed in Matthew Syed’s recently published book: ‘Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking’ uncovers some interesting findings. As an organization the CIA lacked diversity – it was built originally on exclusive grounds of finding the very ‘best’ people, with only one in every 20,000 applicant accepted after being subjected to extensive batteries of tests and screening. It was dominated by white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant American males. With the post 9/11 post mortem on the failings of the agency came the awareness that it was being hampered through lack of diversity – people operating from a similar cultural and social frames of reference thought and responded in certain ways that did not provide holistic approaches or responses to issues. This meant that although analysis occurred it did not join up the dots between different pieces of information, primarily because analysts failed to understand the significance of what they were witnessing.

Syed details other instances where cultural frames of reference offer incomplete pictures of reality. In a 2001 experiment conducted by Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda, from the University of Michigan, they assessed two different groups: Japanese subjects with a communitarian culture and Americans with an individualized culture. Both viewed the same video clips of underwater scenes but responded by observing very different phenomenon. The Americans were object focused and the Japanese concerned with context. While the Americans spoke about the fish, the colour and their size, the Japanese concentrated on the context and spoke about the water, rocks and shells and plants on the bottom and then mentioned, ‘oh and saw three fish.’ Once changes were introduced to the scene, the Japanese struggled to recognize the objects, as if the new context preoccupied them, the Americans, on the other hand, appeared blind to the changed context.

The underwater experiment showed that even in our most direct interaction with the world – that of looking at it directly – there are systematic differences shaped by culture. Each different frame of reference has blind spots where they alone only perceive a partial picture, but by combining the two frames of reference together a more complete picture is offered. This provides a more comprehensive grasp of reality.

There is not a trade-off between diversity and excellence often maintained by people who insist that the inclusion of diversity will dilute standards. Although they different cultural frames of reference may both miss something, they end up actually providing greater insights, meaning that the shared picture is more accurate and offers a richer perspective. A critical factor here is that complex problems require many layers of insight and therefore multiple points of view. Sometimes what is needed is to view a problem or situation through the eyes of an outsider. As American academic Phillip Tetlock states: “The more diverse the perspectives, the wider the range of potentially viable solutions a collection of problem solvers can find.”

Other factors that spring to mind in terms of building empathy and understanding is the following hadith which is a direct form of advice from the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) who is reported to have said:

“The believer is a mirror to his faithful brother. He protects him against loss and defends him behind his back. The believer is a mirror to his brother. If he sees something wrong in him, he should correct it.”

This means that where character can be improved one person can advise another in a kind and discreet manner to assist their personal self-development. A mirror reflects light and enables us to see clearly any blemishes. The analogy of a mirror can be taken to mean many things. For example, the people we attract may mirror our own behaviour and characteristics. We may observe good characteristics within another person which encourages us to emulate and adopt those within ourselves. It may also mean that a person projects what they themselves are like onto another, so if they observe adverse aspects of another’s personality it may be because they themselves contain such characteristics, or conversely, may observe good characteristics which they themselves possess. A further meaning is where a person’s heart is in an elevated state of faith, and God manifests Himself to the person’s heart. One of God’s names is al-Mu’min, meaning ‘the Faithful.’ Thus, the meaning of the hadith would be: ‘the believer, or more specifically, the heart of the believer is the place, or the mirror, to which God, the Faithful, manifests Himself.’

When considering our place in society, how do we start to make an impact on the societies in which we live, when confronted by enormous global issues? The Qur’ān speaks not of such issues of magnitude but of small kindnesses, which each of us can implement in our daily lives and reap the benefits and rewards from such actions. In Surah al-Maun (107) teaches the importance of our social responsibility to others in need. Dr. David Hamilton in his book ‘The Five Side Effects of Kindness’ notes that kindness while an altruistic act returns many positive benefits to the giver. These include: the person becomes happier, the heart rate improves, aging processes slow down, relationships improve and finally, kindness is contagious and its benefits ripple out into society and multiply. Kindness is part of a universal language that is recognized in every culture. Hamilton cites the example of witnessing a young girl’s kindness when bringing food to a homeless man living on the streets. The witness to this act then found himself later that day donating £10 to a homeless stranger, and when returning home acting in a more generous and kind manner to his family. The kindness he had witnessed had touched his heart and affected his behaviour deeply.

Finally, generosity is a form of kindness, which in turn is a manifestation of love. In terms of hospitality, faith communities are at the center of our relationship with food. From our mothers who show their love by feeding us to our reciprocation by eating their food, we learn forms of socialization and the importance of sharing, eating together and feeding others. Muslims believe that there is great blessing in eating wholesome food. God tells us in the Qur’ān: “Eat of the good things I have provided for you” (20:81). Blessing is considered to be cooked into the food when it is prepared by wholesome people. Receiving guests and providing hospitality are another way of showing love to others. A shared meal provides companionship, joy and fosters acceptance and belonging. Listening a while ago to a radio broadcast a psychologist being interviewed maintained that the best way to bring diverse groups of people together was through cooking together and sharing food. Christianity emphasizes in the Bible the communal act of breaking bread together, while for Judaism, the spiritual acts of food consumed within Passover include partaking of the bitter herbs of slavery and unleavened bread. Sikhs provide langar, free vegetarian food served in the Gurdwara (Sikh temple) kitchens daily. Sikhs welcome everyone to partake of the langar regardless of their faith, gender, age or status, and these are examples of hospitality as an inclusive and loving embrace.

Finally, to end on a note of love and just to offer a lasting thought, that while some people are more challenging to love than others, and require much more effort on our part, the result will be an untold reward from God. One of life’s paradoxes is the strength we can collectively gain as a community or nation which can signify our growth or stature when visibly caring in a compassionate way for the weak and vulnerable members of society.