Reflections on equality in light of Ali ibn Abi Talib’s advice to Maalik al-Ashtar

“Remember, Maalik, that amongst your subjects there are two kinds of people: your brothers in faith, and your equals in humanity. People of either category suffer from the same weaknesses and disabilities that humans are inclined to…”

How often I have read these profound lines from letter number 53 in Nahjul Balagha, which compiles letters and sermons of Ali ibn Abi Talib, but yet I remain awe struck by the depth and applicability of the message which underlies these instructions. This particular letter, written at the time of Ali’s caliphate, was to his close companion and appointed governor Maalik al-Ashtar. What stands out about this letter is the justice and humility he orders from Maalik, dictating that he dispenses justice amongst subordinates and treats people with mercy, despite their vices, in the same way that one would like to be treated. What struck me most was the acceptance of varying social statuses and inclusion of the rich and poor into society, whilst maintaining a clear tone of basic equality. You would almost expect a man of Ali’s religiosity to bring the rich aristocrats down a peg or two, or a less pious caliph would perhaps conversely tighten his affiliation with the upper echelons of society. However, Ali maintained a firm, balanced and equal middle path stance, and recognised that the wealthy existed and shouldn’t be punished for their fortune, but likewise, the poor should not be ostracized and neglected, and the gap between the two needed narrowing. Furthermore, only recently have I reflected on the wording of these phenomenal lines, which have even been included in the United Nations’ charter of rights, to recognise that by faith, Ali meant one believing in the notion of God. This opens the door of faith based brotherhood wide open, to include countless religions and faiths, and in addition, maintains one’s right to disbelieve in God but simultaneously have entitlement to equal rights such as respect, security, food etc.

How often do we read in holy scriptures, and most notably in the Holy Quran, that God has fashioned us all in the same way, and although we may come from different cultures, be of different skin complexion, gender, social status and what have you; ultimately, we are equal in the eyes of God, and separated only by our deeds. In fact, when you simplify our coming to life, we were all conceived in the same way, requiring a sperm cell and egg to meet and create a foetus, undergo the stages of development in the womb and finally enter the world in a fragile, sensitive manner. Moreover, our destination is fixed and the same too – we shall all depart this life, leaving only a memory in the hearts of loved ones, and a legacy at best. How naïve mankind is, that though we all originated as that microscopic sperm drop, we still have the audacity to be so arrogant so as to perceive ourselves greater than others. We neglect to recognise that our need for oxygen, nourishment and rest, as well as our desire for companionship, freedom, justice etc exists within each and every one of us, and therefore if we want to realise this individually we must strive to establish equality on a macro level first.

Often I think to myself that the system of living and cohabiting is one which God has left to the free will of mankind, more so than he has for other creatures or systems. Whilst as individuals we are bound to the perfect cardiovascular system to ensure we survive, comparatively, God has not enforced such a rigid, unquestionable structure upon how we cohabit. However, when you look at corporate structures, football teams and communities, all of them can exist and function in the way they’re meant to, optimally, by establishing equality, even if it is internally comparative in nature.

If we take the example of the Prophet Muhammad(pbuh), we see that he lived in a time where arrogance, pomp and inequality was rife, to the extent that the people before Islam were referred to as living in the time of jahiliyya (ignorance). What Muhammad(pbuh) came to establish was perfection in character, and the primary way of doing so was to remove the blinkers from people’s eyes, and show them the beauty and need for equality. In fact, his life reads as an encyclopaedia of acts promoting equality; eradicating the burial of female born babies – who were seen as inferior to boys, breaking the barriers between social classes by constantly sitting and eating with the poor, and even bridging the societal gender divide by accepting the proposal of lady Khadija – an older, more wealthy tradeswoman.

The single act which demonstrates Muhammad’s(pbuh) quest for equality best, is that of the black stone. The holy Ka’ba was the Gherkin building of the time, attracting trade and creating hustle and bustle in the city of Mecca. Heads of tribes, or today’s equivalent of CEOs if you will, would often present themselves around the Ka’ba to stamp their social status. Following severe weather conditions, the Ka’ba required reconstruction, and having restored the structure, it was left to the four head tribesmen to decide who would replace the glorified black stone. To contextualise this today, it would be like raising the national flag and cutting the ribbon to unveil a new epicentre for London’s financial sector, a duty many would yearn for. Likewise, the four main tribal leaders of the time also argued over who would have the ultimate honour, and nearly came to blows over it. They amicably agreed to allow the first visitor to the new construction the following day to decide who would do the honours. As the day approached, it happened to be Muhammad(pbuh) who approached the building first. The chiefs were somewhat pleasantly surprised, as they had long referred to him as al-amin and as-sadiq (the trustworthy and the truthful). Muhammad(pbuh) proved his worth, and developed a plan which symbolised equality to its core. He took off his robe, placed it on the floor and sat the stone in the middle of the robe. He then asked each tribe head to take a corner of the robe and ceremonially carry it to the Ka’ba. Once there, Muhammad(pbuh) himself, without any objection from the tribal heads, nestled the stone into its current day position. The story highlights that with the intent of establishing equality, with a touch of wisdom, resolutions to conflict can be achieved and society can function smoothly.

So how do we apply this to our lives today? And have we slipped too far down the slope, which is our ego and sense of self-importance, to re-establish equality? Well, simply put, no! I don’t need to explain how each of our lives are undoubtedly interlinked through cause and effect and overlapping networks of life events. However, if we recognise the level playing field we intrinsically exist on, then equality can be the arc which connects each of us as individual nodes. God clearly states in the Quran that He blew His ‘spirit’ into each of us to allow our existence to occur, and therefore at our very core and at a fundamental level, we are merely reflections of each – distorted only by the beauty of variety in appearances. To articulate such an idyllic outlook on life is all too easy, but so much more difficult to implement. Whether you take lessons from the Ten Commandments, or advice from The Treatise of Human Rights, by Ali ibn Hussain al-Sajjad – grandson of Muhammad(pbuh), the common theme is always that of equality. Logic itself will tell you that if we put the rights and needs of another before ourselves, then in times of hardship and as a race as a whole, we will bear the fruits of a society in which none has a greater right than another, rather we are all equal.