“Thus have We Made of you an Ummah justly balanced” [Al-Baqara 2:143]
Ummatan Wasatan can be translated as the middle nation, the best nation, and an Ummah justly balanced. The Phrase captures the essence of Islam, which is to shun all excesses. At other places [e.g. Al-Ma’idah 5:12] the Qur’an refers to the path it shows at as Sawaa as-Sabil. Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains: “The Arabic word sawaa signifies smoothness as opposed to roughness; symmetry as opposed to want of plan; equality or proportion as opposed to want of design; rectitude as opposed to crookedness; a mean as opposed to extremes; and fitness for the object held in view as opposed to faultiness.”
Extremism is a product of ignorance. Given two extreme points on a straight line, anyone can point out where the middle point lies. But a person that cannot see the entire line will also miss the middle point. He may be sitting on an extreme edge, yet congratulate himself for being in the middle.
Unlike the line, real life is not one-dimensional. As individuals, we find ourselves being pulled in so many directions by myriad internal and external forces. In a society the complexity increases manifold as these forces intersect in complex ways. When you add their dynamic interrelationship over time, the complexity becomes mind-boggling.
Our own instruments of observation and intellect, wonderful as they are, are simply not up to the task of finding the proper course in this complex, ever-changing, multidimensional maze. There are no satellite observatories, no imaging systems, no super computers that can help us find a solution. Yet we know that we do need to find it. Our physical well-being requires that we eat a well balanced diet and follow the course of moderation. Our economic, social, and spiritual well-being similarly demands finding the balanced approach and the moderate course in all these spheres. Our total well-being requires finding the path of moderation for our entire life.
For this we need Divine Guidance. No one is more conscious of this than the believer who turns to Allah five times a day with this supplication: “Show us the Straight Path.” The Path that avoids the extremes of Ifraat (excess) and Tafreet (insufficient action). Is there another group that seeks the path of rectitude and moderation with the same fervor?
That this is the Ummah justly balanced can be seen by looking at its beliefs and practices. A large number of followers of other religions who accepted Islam have been impressed by the simplicity, profoundness, clarity, and logical soundness of its belief system. It is in religious belief systems that extremist tendencies take their greatest toll. On the one hand there have been people who worshiped animals, celestial bodies, and forces of nature; on the other are those who deny even the existence of God. Avoiding these extremes are the shining teachings of Islam. The sun, stars, fire, water, and wind are mere creations of One Almighty God. He alone created the entire universe and He alone is its Lord and Master. Islamic monotheism is the truth. Atheism and polytheism are extremist distortions of this central truth.
Similar is the case of belief in prophets. On the one hand are people who attributed divinity to prophets, declaring some of them to be son of God; on the other are those who considered these chosen people as ordinary human beings who committed all sorts of sins. There are still others who knowingly persecuted and killed the prophets. Again the truth stands in the middle — as taught by Islam. Allah chose messengers from among human beings to convey to them His guidance. They were all humans as they were meant to be exemplars for humanity. Yet they were best of all humanity and they spoke with Divine Authority. They deserved the deepest love, devotion, and obedience from other human beings. One only needs to contrast the depiction of the prophets in the Qur’an with that in other scriptures to appreciate this difference. The latter shows the distortions produced by human imagination. It shows the extremism that can creep in when God’s words and teachings are no longer preserved.
It is the same story with religious practices. We see two extremes in Christianity and Judaism. In the former Love replaced Law; in the latter Law turned into a straitjacket that made life unbearable and from which Reformist had to seek escape — thereby going to the other extreme. If one were to borrow the language the media uses, routinely and inappropriately, when referring to Islamic law, he would find himself using words like harsh and strict in referring to clause after clause in authentic Jewish law.
Again we see Islam as providing the middle ground between the two extremes. It does provide law and does distinguish between the permissible and the forbidden. But the law is free of that strangulating formalism that is seen as a burden rather than a blessing. The Qur’an mentions it as an important attribute of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace: “He releases them from their heavy burdens and from the yokes that are upon them.”[Al-A'raf, 7:157].
Extremism is inherently unstable. Its injustices invoke a rebellion and a counter trend. Thus we see that the Western World has gone from the pleasure-is-sin ascetism of yesteryears to the sin-is-in liberalism of today. In these wanderings from one extreme to another, the extremist tendencies themselves have not been overcome. Rather, they have produced unprecedented social upheaval at home and unprecedented exploitation and injustices abroad. (Islamic history is free of such wanderings, as one would expect of a religion that came to show the middle path.)
“But if any of you, after this, resists faith, he has truly wandered from the path of rectitude.” [Al-Maidah 5:12]