Martin Luther King, Jr. and Being A Good Neighbor

By Maha Elgenaidi, Executive Director.

This speech was delivered at the Shia Association of the Bay Area (SABA)’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Interfaith Event on January 14, 2018.

Salam alaykum,

Martin Luther King, Jr., said about neighbors:

The ultimate measure of a person is not where he or she stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he or she stands in times of challenge and controversy. The true neighbor will risk his or her position, his or her prestige, and even his or her life for the welfare of others. In dangerous valleys and hazardous pathways, he or she will lift some bruised and beaten brother or sister to a higher and more noble life.

I want to reflect on this extraordinary quote of Martin Luther King, Jr. because it truly reflects my Islamic teachings on rights of neighbors, and also because being neighborly has never been more important than today when our national political leaders are exemplifying just the opposite in behavior. The latter reality should call us to duty.

During politically contentious and difficult times, like the time we’re living in, ordinary people like you and me must take the initiative, be proactive, and take up the responsibility for creating a more caring and compassionate nation. We cannot rely on others to do this for us.

Neighborliness is not only a civic virtue that is fundamental to our Constitution under responsibilities of citizenship, it is also a religious obligation commanded by God and the prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.

In the Quran, chapter 4, verse 36, God says,

“Worship God and associate nothing with God, and be virtuous towards parents and kin, toward orphans, and the indigent, toward the neighbor who is of kin and the neighbor who is not of kin.“

This verse demonstrates to me that conviction of faith in God must be immediately followed by fulfilling obligations of kindness and charity toward family members, orphans and the poor, and neighbors close and distant, regardless of their faith or background. So just as God has rights over us, so do our neighbors.

The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reportedly said:

“One who believes in God, and the Day of Judgment must not cause hardship and inconvenience to his neighbor; must respect his guest; and must speak well or keep quiet”. (Bukhari and Muslim)

Some of the foremost rights of neighbors include:

Making sure they’re not hungry while you’re well fed. The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reportedly said: “Whenever you prepare food, make plenty of it and give some of it to your neighbors”. (Muslim)

He also said: “That man is not from me who sleeps contentedly while his neighbor sleeps hungry.” (Bukhari)

Safety is another right of neighbors. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reportedly said, “By God, he is not a believer! By God, he is not a believer! By God, he is not a believer.” It was asked, “Who is that, O Messenger of God?” He said, “One whose neighbor does not feel safe from his evil”. (Bukhari and Muslim)

One should also be generous with neighbors in all ways:

The prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, reportedly said: “The best of companions of God is the one who is best to his companions, and the best of neighbors to God is the one who is the best of them to his neighbor”. (Tirmidhi)

The prophet also said: The Angel Gabriel always advises me to be generous with neighbors, so much so that I thought God would include the neighbors among the heirs of a Muslim.” (Bukhari and Muslim). And again: “No one of you should consider insignificant (a gift) to give to his or her neighbor.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Imam `Ali ibn al-Husayn in his Risalat al-Huquq, sums up the rights of neighbors as follows. He says:

“These are your duties towards your neighbors: Protect their interests when they ares absent; show them respect when they are present; help them when they are afflicted with any injustice. Do not look out to detect their faults; and if, by any chance, you happen to know any bad thing about them, hide it from others; and, at the same time, try to make them desist from bad habits, if there is any chance that they will listen to you. Never leave them alone at any calamity. Forgive them, if they have done any wrong. In short, live with them a noble life, based on the highest Islamic ethical code.”

So on this Monday, as we enjoy our day off in celebration of Martin Luther King, Jr., let us remember his example and the words of our God and our Prophet by putting into practice our religious duties and values by getting to know our neighbor and by being good neighbors.

The organization I work for, ING, has a website full of ideas on how you might get started. Visit us here.

May God give us the wisdom and spirit for fulfilling the rights our neighbors have over us. Amen.