Human Values after Corona

Framework Speech by

H.E Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah President, Forum for Promoting Peace, UAE


In the name of God, the All-Merciful, the Most-Compassionate

All praise belongs to God, the Lord and Cherisher of all Worlds of Being

Prayers and peace be upon our Master Muhammad, the Final Prophet, and upon his brethren, the Prophets and Messengers

Respected Attendees:

Our Seventh Forum takes place in unusual circumstances and on a different platform. While we join together with hearts and minds, our bodies remain separated, for necessity demands that we remain socially distanced from one another in these difficult times.

The Forum has consistently pioneered a new model of dialogue and a unique meeting of minds. In addition to the many important presentations, discussions and working groups, there has been an equally vital point of connection. The Forum has facilitated deeply personal connections and a shared space and place of meeting for different societies and civilisations.. Here we share life and move and talk together. More importantly, we witness, observe and discover that, in the end, no matter how different our various perspectives and cultures, we are all siblings, who share much more in common than we have previously imagined.

This year’s assembly takes place against the backdrop of an existential crisis. The current pandemic threatens humanity. It has disrupted the normal patterns of human life. It has forced us to rearrange our priorities and question our values.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first epidemic to strike the planet. Throughout our long history, mankind has witnessed manifold disasters and uncertainty. However, in recent times, this pandemic is unprecedented. Particularly given the widespread nature of its impact and its negative affects on almost every sector and society. This crisis is creating many other crises.

Things that once appeared disconnected, we now recognise as connected. The crisis is causing us to see the interconnectedness of healthcare, economics, politics, psychology, religion and ethics. Intertwined at many different levels, these disciplines feed one another, creating a web of extreme complexity.

The manifestations of this crisis can be viewed as a collection of struggles or dialectics that humanity must face and respond to immediately. In particular, these include:

The struggle between the challenge to protect human life and safeguard wealth: We face the choice as to whether we open-up or lockdown our communities and the challenge to strike a balance in between. Opening up enables people to continue their livelihoods, meets the needs of financial markets for movement and stimulation and prevents individuals and businesses from facing the affects of bankruptcy. On the other hand, lockdown provides the only means to ensure that the spread of the pandemic is limited, that is, until such a time as a vaccine is widely available. Based upon their particular visions and contexts, nations have chosen different ways to address this struggle.

The struggle between the logic of scientific research and the logic of the marketplace: This is yet another manifestation of the aforementioned trade-off. The pandemic questioned the dialectic of objective scientific research, which is based upon cooperation and sharing of knowledge, versus the logic of markets which are based upon protection of intellectual property and copyrights, competition, and possession. This has also been made manifest by those multinational corporations that have taken advantage of people’s vulnerability to make inordinate profits. Similarly, we have seen one part of the world turning its back on another, stubbornly adhering to a selfish logic that refuses to relieve the debts of the poorest countries. These countries, in turn, are crumbling under the weight of their financial obligations and find their opportunities for economic development further limited by the current circumstances.

The struggle between certainty and doubt; weakness and strength: The pandemic has made us realize that there is no class or race, no matter how developed or evolved, that is safe from this type of emergency and disaster. The journeys we take on this planet, are not always safe or guaranteed. This realisation has led to widespread fear, a lack of certainty, and for some, a complete loss of trust. Scientific and technological advances have provided modern man with a sense of certainty, trust and relaxation. This false sense of security has been dismantled by the realisation that he is ultimately unable to control his fate or even his environment.

The struggle between globalization and the nation state: This pandemic has proven that the nation state provides the natural and necessary refuge in a time of crisis. It alone is capable of taking the essential measures to enable communities to face these challenges. For this reason, people have returned to their homelands for safety and nation states have taken it upon themselves to put measures in place to protect their people from the pandemic and confront the resulting challenges.

In light of the above, we have also witnessed the necessity for international cooperation and the inadequacy of isolated, individual efforts. There is a need to activate and facilitate cooperation between states in order to exchange data, collaborate on research, share ideas and maximise solidarity and mutual aid.

The struggle between the logic of freedom and that of duty: In this, we have witnessed the benefits of ‘freedom’ of movement and free interaction between citizens, especially for trade, education and religious observance. This often benefits societies and individuals. Likewise we have heard the language of ‘duty’ return to public discourse, after decades of focus purely on personal freedoms and individual rights.

The struggle between the universal interests of life, versus religious freedom: One of the primary effects of this crisis is in the religious sphere. It affected both individual and communal acts of worship, as well as contracts and financial transactions and even ideals and questions of theology. In the Emirates Council for Legal Fatwa we addressed an important aspect of this struggle in our Conference on the Fiqh of Contingencies. This was conducted in conjunction with the Muslim World League. It was an opportunity to direct the attention of religious scholarship to the necessity of employing independent and novel legal reasoning to ascertain the position of sacred law regarding a number of new issues related to religious faith and practice in order to facilitate the religious observance of Muslims and put them at ease regarding their affairs.

Ladies and Gentlemen, respected attendees:

This pandemic has taught us valuable lessons and caused us to acknowledge forgotten realities; having been blinded by a world of plenty, humankind now sees its own essential weakness: “man was created weak.” (4:28) It has also demonstrated the limits of human knowledge and understanding ,which are a cause for man’s humility. “you have been given of knowledge but little.” (17:85)

Even though this pandemic began as a health crisis, it quickly turned into a crisis of values and morality. It is a crisis which tests our values, our morals, and our very faith. It tests our character, both in our interactions with one another; at home and with our neighbors. Do we practice patience and solidarity, or do we submit to hopelessness and despair? It tests our values: Do we uphold the values of charity, love, and altruism with those near and far, or do we confine our goodness to ourselves and create a narrower sphere of kindness? This is a test not only for individuals but also for states. They surely have the responsibility to help those with less wealth and power, particularly the ones who do not have the means to confront the health crisis and subsequent economic crisis.

On the one hand, in a time of crisis, when an atmosphere of doubt, confusion and uncertainty abounds, many people claim that they can predict the future. These characters come bearing glad tidings of a brighter day to be born of its own accord. On the other hand, there are many who are filled with sorrow and sustain themselves through difficult days through historical reminiscence and recourse to an idealised past. In this time of crisis, by locating ourselves between these poles, we will discover a unique opportunity to reassess many things.

The pandemic, which has drastically slowed down the speed of modern of life, has thus given us a timely opportunity to contemplate and revaluate.

Through the virtue of humility, we become open to new ideas and discovery; not merely the discovery of a cure, which is very important, but the discovery of new opportunities unearthed by the pandemic. These opportunities, born from the womb of tribulation, exist on many levels and bear with them the possibility of a better world.

This is an opportunity that must be seized to stop ongoing warfare and put down arms – even if only for a short time. Humankind must respond to the call of reason and religion, as well as the Global Call of the United Nations and all people of intellect and goodwill, to cooperate and support one another, even if this is only relative or circumstantial. As the proverb goes, “crises bring together victims”. By practicing the virtues of mercy we can relate – even if only to a minor degree – to the reality that many face on a daily basis. We should use this time to recognise that a vast number of human beings face ongoing destruction, pain and warfare all around the world.

This is an opportunity to develop a new vision of life that balances all of our universal concerns and guarantees a more just and merciful economic system; one that considers the human being as an end rather than a means and concentrates on promoting human welfare, wellbeing, and peace instead of an economy of war.

It is a rare opportunity to discover ourselves, to find the hidden wellsprings of goodness and virtue inside ourselves and to restore the spirit of man ,which strives for the Absolute to a state free of the limitations of his ego and selfishness.

This is not a utopian dream or impossibility, if we are able to draw lessons and inspiration from our present circumstances. The birth of a new human being will not take place in a single day and it will not happen all at once. This birth will not take place unless the means for it are set in motion today. After all, the future is naught but the fruit of the present. In the flow of time, the future is constantly formed out of the present. In the same way that the present is made from the past, the conclusion is drawn from its premise as the branches shoot forth from the trunk.

The present is where the future is made. If our concern for the future is to be sincere, it must first manifest as a concern for the present. Otherwise it will merely be false hope. Every desire for a better future, that is not founded upon present work, is simply a false hope; it is delusion. It is like waiting for harvest without having tilled the land and planted the seeds in the first place.

Knowing and anticipating the future is not a form of fortunetelling or speculation. It becomes possible as a result of careful analysis of the present and a deep understanding of the universal law of causation. There is a rule in life that says our future shall be like our present.

It is from this starting point that our assembly seeks to promote common universal values, such as justice, solidarity, and human fraternity, which are animated by a new spirit. This is the spirit of the passengers on board the same ship. We have entitled our conference, in Arabic, Values for a Post-COVID World: The Spirit of Passengers on One Ship.

The Metaphor of Passengers on One Ship

This crisis has underlined our common destiny as human beings. The pandemic destroyed all theories of discrimination based on race, language, or economic development when it refused to discriminate between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak. Instead, the pandemic treated everyone equally and revealed the eternal truth of the weakness of man and his constant need for his fellow human being.

Thus, it has become clearly manifest - perhaps more clearly than ever before - that the residents of this planet are like passengers on that ship that the Prophet (God bless him and grant him peace) described in the hadith1:

The similitude of the one upholding the laws of God and the one breaking it are like a group of people who drew lots on where they will sit in a ship. Thus some of them sat up on the deck and others were in the galley. When the ones in the galley were in need of water they would go on to the deck, passing the others by. At some point they decided that if they were to just bore hole in the hull they could draw water out of it without having to go upstairs onto the deck and annoying the others for water. If those on top of the deck allow them to do as they please, they would all drown; but if they restrained them, they would save themselves and the others.

Prophetic metaphors are a part of the Prophet’s (God bless him and grant him peace) gift of concise and profoundly eloquent speech. In a few short words manifold meanings are conveyed, on various levels, that cannot all be explained and elaborated.

The hadith contains a profound metaphor for the state of humanity, their common trajectory, and their shared destiny. Even though the ship has different levels, all the passengers onboard share one journey and a single common destiny.

This fact has become clear in this age of the ‘global village.’ We are connected in the most intricate and yet explicit of ways. Whatever happens in one part of the world has knock-on effects in all the others. Whatever people do in one part of the world, likewise affects people in other parts of the globe. We share one interconnected system, with no ultimate means of separation or segregation from others.

On the environmental plane, the citizens of every continent bear the effects of the actions of those living on other continents. For example, the effects of the explosion of the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl were not limited to its immediate environs, and neither were they limited in any spatial-temporal manner, as the effects extended into the future. This is one environment which we all share. No country has its own private share of the Ozone layer that it can do with as it pleases, or its private air which it can pollute to whatever degree it sees fit. Rather, all of us have to foot the bill for environmental damage, without exception.

There is nothing that more profoundly demonstrates this interrelation of humanity than a microscopic virus that first appeared in a distant corner of the world and, in a matter of a few short weeks, managed to spread around the world. It left no countryside nor city, no town nor sprawling metropolis unstruck. And ironically it made use of man-made routes and modes of transport for its own ease of movement, trade, and enjoyment.

In the context of rediscovering and becoming conscious of this connection, man, who has been been protected by the comforts of modern civilization, now notices other nations and communities of plants and animals that share the planet with him. What’s more, he realises that the future of his natural environment is intrinsically intertwined with his own, in a finely balanced ecosystem. No part of this system can be damaged without the damage being experienced by all others.

In the age of globalization, mankind only needs to look at his dinner to see that the whole world has been brought before him: food from every corner of the world is present on his plate. A signifiant disturbance in one part of the world will immediately result in a similar disturbance showing up somewhere else.

As for culture, it has taken trade and the economy as an aid and a prop. Wherever the goods of a place land, so too land the ideals and values of their origin. Globalization has manifested itself as the voluntary presence of another, but it is in fact necessarily predetermined by the nature of things.

This is the interconnection that the parable of the ship reveals. It is an interconnection based upon a shared situation and a positive causal relationship. The current pandemic makes us conscious of this: “There truly is a reminder in this for whoever has a heart or whoever listens while he is heedful.” (50:37) Nonetheless, this consciousness must bear fruit as a spirit for positive action. It is the same spirit that animates the passengers on the ship. They believe in their shared responsibility, in a responsible and enlightened freedom, and in the necessity of solidarity and cooperation.

This spirit has a particular form, substance, and goal. Its substance is a faith in shared responsibility. Its form is solidarity and cooperation. Its goal is the preservation of universal interests which are in turn, expressed by the legal import of the hadith, as it mentions the limits of the sacred law.

On board this human ship, the spirit of one supportive team must prevail. Everyone contributes to the success of the journey and performs his role, which stems from his position and circles of influence and interest. This is the functional distribution referred to in the hadith as ‘drawing lots.’ It requires integration and harmony.

Those who are at the top of the ship, who are in charge of managing public affairs, in all its levels and varying degrees, must assume their responsibility towards those at the bottom, and restrain those who want to compromise the integrity of the ship. The strong have a responsibility towards the weak, and the rich towards the poor. Scholars have a responsibility towards the laity, and, most importantly, people of virtue have a responsibility towards all others. This responsibility arises from the values of fraternity, human dignity, and hope in the possibility of real coexistence.

Onboard this ship, the principle of responsible freedom must prevail. This is a freedom which does not encroach on others, it does not lead to a breach of the peace, or disturb the collective order of the ship's passengers. The freedom of each passenger ends at the point at which his actions bear negative effects. At this stage, everyone must intervene to restrain their act and stand up, in opposition to it. That is a responsible and balanced freedom that takes into account the existence of others and respects their rights.

You can imagine what the condition of the ship's passengers would be if they quarrelled and squabbled instead of cooperating. Having untethered their selfish desires, their inevitable destiny is drowning in the stormy sea that surrounds them.

Respected audience,

The spirit of the ship passengers calls on us to stop polluting the environment and stop corrupting land and sea. It commands us to immediately stop warfare. It requires us to possess a spirit of tolerance and compassion; to love for others what we love for ourselves; to distribute vaccines to everyone without monopoly or exploitation. It calls upon wealthy countries to look at their poorer counterparts with empathy, allowing them a period of facilitation to repay their debts, or setting them off entirely, and thus relieving them of their burden.

It calls upon us to devise a developmental model that aids prosperity, affluence, and stability for all. It calls upon us to seek a world in which scientific research exists for the benefit of all without monopolization by the rich and powerful, a world in which nations compete in goodness, and in which states are proactive in offering an Abrahamic hospitality to migrants and the displaced.

It guides us to build societies founded upon tranquility, societies in which security prevails, in which the weak are not afraid of oppression or aggression of the strong; societies in which man feels safe with his neighbors, and in which intolerance and sectarianism no longer exist.

The metaphor of the ship passengers inspires us for a future in which the dignity of every human being is preserved. This refers to the dignity of every human being despite their different races, colors, languages, and beliefs. It is the result of the Creator’s breath (Mighty and Majestic), which was blown into their forefather Adam, peace be upon him. “We have honoured the children of Adam and carried them by land and sea; We have provided good sustenance for them and favoured them specially above many of those We have created.” (17:70)

The metaphor of the ship passengers guides us to look for points of common love and harmony, solution of compromise, egalitarian mediation, and mutual concessions that are at the core of the logic of coexistence. In this way we can mediate between the principles of freedom and responsibility – like Paul Ricoeur's mediation between justice and love, or Thomas Aquinas's harmonization of justice and mercy.

The metaphor of the ship passengers renews virtue in the soul, underlines awareness of the unity of human destiny and calls for a universal gift of conscience that restores the effectiveness of cooperation, solidarity and compassion. It presents a new vision of humanity that surpasses the discourse of equality and disregard for difference. It demands that we attain the positive virtues which enable others to feel the true warmth of our love and fraternity.

With this optimistic spirit, we bear the good news of a world in which peace will be all-encompassing - not merely by stopping warfare - but through the attainment of peace in and by the human heart.

Respected Attendees,

The present crisis has uncovered the shortcomings of a selfish world. If, as societies, we cannot see those things that we hold in common with others ,we will be unable to deal with an indiscriminate danger that does not differentiate between nations, lands, ethnicities, or religions.

Nonetheless, this crisis has also fuelled the flame of solidarity. We have witnessed and heard of many inspiring examples of individuals who looked beyond themselves to spread goodness and love, and the values of solidarity and fraternity. We have witnessed countries that were able to transcend concerns of politics and international relations, to demonstrate lofty ideals of sympathy, cooperation and association.

The metaphor of the ship’s passengers has been powerfully present in the UAE’s vision and strategy, in confronting the repercussions of this global crisis. The UAE played a pioneering role, by standing in solidarity with the countries affected by this pandemic, regardless of differences in religion and ethnicity. It mobilized its naval, land and air fleets, through the joint efforts of all state institutions, thereby providing a lifeline of basic healthcare and humanitarian aid to more than seventy countries. The UAE has worked tirelessly to limit the spread of the Coronavirus and to make relief available to whoever is in need of it; considering this to be the nation’s highest purpose at this time.

Solidarity is a commitment to the welfare for others. It is a virtue that transcends mere recognition of the other and embraces positive acquaintance with him. Through solidarity we can overcome the narrowness of individual identities and enter into the shared spaces of what is common and what is shared among us. Solidarity allows us to move from the fragmentation of minorities and limited identities, to the unity of the collective whole: the community of greater humanity.

This has become evident in this crisis. The need has arisen to promote solidarity from empty formulas and peripheral activities - which the marketplace had reduced it to - and to reconnect it with its ethical content: the values of mercy, aid, cooperation and benevolence. These values, while transcending the notion of rights, are also necessary for their very existence. They guarantee the potency and efficacy of human rights, as they are the common ground on which these rights are built.

The New Alliance of Virtue and the New Social Contract

Respected audience,

The New Alliance of Virtue that we issued and ratified last year represents the finest conceptual and procedural embodiment of the metaphor of the ship’s passengers. It can therefore be a strong reference point for this new beginning.

Our Charter is not merely a collection of ineffective words or theoretical principles disconnected from reality. Rather, it is to be translated and embodied as a practical curriculum. It is to be offered in schools, to educate, and in temples, as teachings for the faithful. It should be invoked in conflict zones to foster tranquility and facilitate hope.

We believe that the values on which our Charter is based, can guide the world and offer solutions to society’s most challenging problems, especially at this difficult phase of human history. The Charter is based on promoting the principles of human dignity, freedom and justice, and at the same time calls for the principles of tolerance, peace, mercy and solidarity. It also calls for establishing a balanced model of polite tolerance, responsible freedom, positive citizenship and a supportive economy. This in turn, can provide the model for a new social contract, to which all humanity aspires.

The Charter also embodies the spirit of the ship’s passengers in its belief in human commonalities, as it is based on the solid ground of shared values that are common to the Abrahamic religions and to human ethical norms more generally.

The Charter also transcends the notion of rights to focus on the attainment of virtue. The discourse on rights requires specification, or the preference of the rights of one group over another, for a given reason. Dealing on the basis of rights means that we restrict ourselves to granting the other only what is theirs in the first place, or merely restraining ourselves from infringing upon him. On the other hand, dealing with others from the standpoint of virtue involves honor and benevolence; it becomes about generosity towards the other without the expectation that we must receive something in return. It involves a willingness on our part to step down and let him have that which was not his right to claim.

These are, respected attendees, some thoughts, milestones, and landmarks on the path to restore humanity's moral conscience. The Second World War was a shock to the human conscience. Humanity, shocked by the horror of the disaster, emerged in its wake with a new conscience. This novel conscience produced a new world order that reflected, in some respects, the values later enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Will this crisis be the occasion for a new start, and an opportunity for the birth of a new human being, with a new vision of the world that is based on virtue; a human who reconstructs himself and his relations with his fellow man and with other creatures besides him?

Any delay in taking the initiative to act in a timely manner imprisons the future of humanity and makes future generations captive to processes that they will not be able to take control of.

Mankind is now in a ship that is on the verge of being stranded. I fear the same thing that we all fear might take place if the spirit of the passengers on the ship does not prevail. I fear that if the spirit of the passengers does not prevail, a disaster will occur and humanity will only be saved by a miraculous ship, like Noah’s ark (peace be upon him), appearing to carry the fortunate to safety.