Hazrat Ayesha (ra) relates that Prophet Muhammad (saw) was once lying in bed with his thigh uncovered. At some point, Hazrat Abu Bakr (ra) arrived and spoke to Prophet Muhammad (saw) while Prophet Muhammad’s (saw) thigh remained uncovered. Sometime later, Hazrat Umar (ra) arrived and spoke to Prophet Muhammad (saw) in the same manner. Later, Hazrat Usman (ra) arrived and sought permission to enter, at which point Prophet Muhammad (saw) sat up and covered his thigh. After the conversation had ended and Hazrat Usman (ra) left, Hazrat Ayesha (ra) said in an inquisitive manner, “Abu Bakr entered and you did not stir and did not observe much care (in arranging your clothes), then Umar entered and you did not stir and did not arrange your clothes, then Usman entered and you got up and set your clothes right.” Prophet Muhammad (saw) replied, “Should I not show modesty to one whom even the angels show modesty” (Al Adab al Mufrad)?
The anecdote underscores a fine point – Prophet Muhammad (saw) was extremely aware of people’s cultural sensitivities. Hazrat Usman (ra) was not only his follower, but also his son-in-law, affording two avenues for Prophet Muhammad (saw) to have overlooked this nuance. Instead, Prophet Muhammad (saw) recognized this right of Hazrat Usman (ra) and acted accordingly.
The same idea can be carried over towards the acceptance of an invitation or a gift from a friend. Prophet Muhammad (saw) said, “I shall accept the invitation even if I were invited to a meal of a sheep’s trotter, and I shall accept the gift even if it were an arm or a trotter of a sheep” (Bukhari). With Jamaat members coming from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds, being culturally sensitive is necessary to avoid injuring one’s feelings or honor.
The same idea is applicable to religious dialogue. Once, during a religious discussion, a Jew stated that Prophet Moses (as) was greater than Prophet Muhammad (saw). In response, the Muslim slapped the Jew. The Jew complained to Prophet Muhammad (saw), who then declared, “Do not declare my superiority over Moses” (Bukhari). As Hazrat Khalifatul Masih IV (rh) explained, the statement does not mean that Prophet Moses (as) was greater in status, but that one should not fight about such issues so as to injure another’s feelings and lose sight of the purpose of religious dialogue (Islam’s Response to Contemporary Issues). Similarly, the Promised Messiah (as) was so concerned with the sentiments of Hindus that, under certain circumstances, he was ready to have Jamaat members abstain from eating beef (Message of Peace).
But this does not mean we should sacrifice our teachings in deference to another’s sensitivities. As the Promised Messiah (as) instructed, “Refrain from all such measures as would cause them pain, except those that are essential or obligatory according to our faith” (Message of Peace).
Accordingly, Hazrat Khalifatul Masih V (aba) mentioned a story of a Christian friend who attended a dinner in which Huzur (aba) was also present. Upon asking why the man was not eating, the man told Huzur (aba) that he was fasting. Respecting this, Huzur (aba) stayed silent and was happy at the commitment he showed to his faith. A short while later, however, Huzur (aba) noticed that the man was eating chicken and asked the man if he was allowed to eat chicken during his fast. The man laughed and said his faith teaches him that if the host offers you something, you should eat it. Huzur (aba) remarked that due to ambiguous religious teachings, the man wrongfully gave precedence to the host’s sentiments over a religious commandment (FS 7/12/2013).
Thus, a spiritually fit Muslim strikes the right balance regarding respecting another’s culture.
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