Civilizational values in the Sirah of the Prophet: Towards a vision for the future

By Katherine Marshall, G20 Interfaith Association Vice President, World Faiths Development Dialogue (WFDD), Berkley Center. 

This address was initially delivered at an international conference on “Civilizational Values in the Prophet’s Seerah” hosted by the Muslim World League, ICESCO, and Morocco’s League of Religious Scholars (Rabita Mohammedia) on May 27th, 2021 from Rabat, Morocco. 

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The COVID emergencies have disrupted lives and plans across the globe.

The best and worst human qualities are on display: positivity, compassion, common effort, creativity, and urgent capacity for action; but far more worryingly, also jealousy, conflict, negative competition, and short-term visions. The COVID crises have highlighted fragility and interdependence, hope and despair, ancient and new tensions, and the complex interplay of the very global and the very local.

Spiritual care and leadership are highlighted in this time of crisis as an “essential service” to humanity – a balm for troubled souls and the turbulent waters of the current storm.

A Kairos Moment

We thus face a Kairos moment – one that will surely be marked, 50 years from now, as a turning point in human history. It offers a time to rethink better and more creatively and to rebuild fairer, more justly, more beautifully, more sustainably, and more compassionately. There is both a need and opportunity to cooperate and to build bridges.

A Kairos moment is a special time of grace and opportunity, a call to vision and the wisdom of prophets. This Kairos moment is an invitation to draw on the finest qualities of religious wisdom, core values, and traditions, as so many have highlighted in speaking to the Prophet Mohammed’s Sirah. As many have said, this moment demands that core, long-forged values and traditions are translated into practice, “walking the talk,” going beyond words to action.

The Need for a Prophetic Voice

The insistence on the wisdom and lived experience of the Prophet of Islam highlights the central qualities which we look to for a prophetic voice.

What we call “prophetic voices” and “visions” demand, above all, truth, courage, and vision. In today’s cacophony, including on social media but also in everyday interactions, prophets have the courage and wisdom to speak truth: Truth to those in power, like global leaders of nations and global institutions, but also truth to citizens, young and old. They also articulate visions that are grounded in reality and tradition but also look beyond, to the horizons of dreams, demanding leadership and common action.

We look for these prophetic visions to offer insights into what both tradition and modernity offer. Religious voices, individually and above all in harmony and cooperation, have vital, indispensable roles, well-anchored in values and in truthful and trusted institutions. These values need to be well-articulated, comprehensible to today’s youth, everywhere. The rich diversity of humanity needs to be reconciled with and mobilized behind common challenges, offering guidance to heal, both from the pandemic and from ancient bitterness and harsh, painful memories.

The moment calls for scientific progress and reaffirmation of the common commitments reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals approved in 2015 by all United Nations member nations. Bitter conflicts, destructive religious nationalism, extremism, and false tendencies to turn inwards need action.

Seven Pillars on Which to Build Our Bridges

Let me highlight my hope for the wisdom of today’s prophets in seven pragmatic areas that must serves as pillars for the bridges we so urgently need:

  1. Education systems, secular and religious, public and private, need urgent rebuilding and reform.  Education is the foundation of social contracts and it needs to challenge thinking, ground core values, and spark lifelong curiosity and creativity. Assuring universal access is feasible and essential, for girls and boys, poor and rich, urban and rural.
  2. The skills and wisdom of peacebuilders deserve respect but still more active support.
  3. Inequality, so grotesquely visible in the COVID crisis, needs aggressive action, starting with protection of the poorest and most vulnerable but still more to support just aspirations and common purpose. Addressing the challenges of marginalized groups and translating ideals of gender equality into action are the core of the equality challenge.
  4. Urgent action to protect the planet demands common wisdom and action from religious communities.
  5. Universal health care, for the community and each individual, is both feasible and essential as a common goal.
  6. The urgent needs of displaced populations and migrants, especially those so desperately fleeing persecution and hopelessness, demand truth, courage, and prophetic visions.
  7. The COVID crisis shows unmistakably the importance of governance, of states, of religious institutions, and of robust cooperation among them. Honest governance that honors truth, bold action, and trustworthiness are needed more than ever.

In this Kairos moment, I highlight the special opportunity of the G20 Interfaith Forum, an engagement group that aspires to draw on the wisdom and action of interreligious action and scholarship. This Forum will meet in Bologna in September, 2021, and is a platform for counsel to the world’s most powerful national leaders. We are confident that here and elsewhere, the wisdom of the prophets can guide us towards urgent and bold action in all these areas.

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Professor Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. She serves as the vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, tackling development issues in the world’s poorest countries.