This was the question I had to reflect on in my talk to a community of churches at an evening last week in Burley in Wharfedale in the West Yorkshire.
I am not a philosopher or an expert in this subject but I thought I had enough life experiences that will allow me to offer some insight. I also felt that it will be worth sharing part of what I said with a wider audience through this blog.
What makes us human is a very important question but it is not one we get asked or talk about often. As an ordinary human being, when I received an email from my friend Alastair Kirk inviting me to reflect on what makes us human, I had to google the question. The answer was somehow bemusing. Google’s top answer was ‘do you want to know how to become a good human resources manager?’
In my opinion nothing makes us more human than reaching out to our fellow human beings in times of difficulties.
What makes us human is pertinent to our very existence and the context which we live in. As human beings, in good times, we are less aware of one another’s situation but when crisis hits, we come together and ask for help. Today’s refugee crisis is a real example of this. In peaceful times, we won’t know where countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Sudan are located on the world map but it is due to war and misery that people from conflict zones are asking for help and sanctuary.
We live in a world that is largely in conflict. A world that is also unequal at so many levels with human rights abuses at large. And we live in times where 60 million people are displaced due to wars and natural disasters. The question of ‘what makes us human’ is therefore constantly asked each and every time we hear about the tragedies of human sufferings across the world.
We live in a world where it is absolutely impossible to hide away, take no notice and ignore what is happening. Events catch up with us and so does our responsibility as human beings.
In the early 1990s, when the Afghan Communist Regime was toppled, fighting broke out between the different factions of the religious fighters that led to the death of a million civilians, destroyed towns and cities and displaced many.
We were one of the families amongst the hundreds of thousands who had to leave Kabul where we lived. We moved to the eastern city of Jalalabad where we initially ended up in a refugee camp. Today, there are 38 million people who are internally displaced and each and every one of them like us are hoping for a peaceful return to their homes, cities and towns.
We lived at different places in Jalalabad but one experience that stood out to me to this very day was that a Sikh friend of my dad gave us sanctuary and accommodated us at his family home for some years. We were running away from the unfortunate fallout between Muslims and were housed by a Sikh. I observed a similar situation last year when the Bishop of Coventry welcomed Syrian refugees for a welcome reception at his house in Coventry. What this taught me was that our obligation as human beings is not only to those who share the same faith with us or look or sound the same as we do but it is more about how we can reach out to the stranger.
It is not about how best we put each other down but it is more about what we can do to break out of the herd instinct and help our fellow human beings irrespective of their creed, beliefs, looks or understanding.
As human beings we are put under greater responsibility, especially now as we live in time of globalisation, diversity and modernity.
I am always reminded of the verse in the Holy Quran:
“O Mankind! We created you from male and female and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of the creator is he who is most righteous of you.”
Obviously, I am not a theologian to do this verse the honour of a clear analysis but it is a verse that resonates with the question at hand and most importantly refers to the basic principles of being a human in a diverse world. A world that is diverse in beliefs, colours, ethnicities, tastes and desires.
So in my view what makes us human in a multi-faith and multi-cultural world is acceptance.
What makes us human in a world that is largely in conflict is forgiveness.
What makes us human in a world with 60 million refugees is to reach out to the stranger and offer a helping hand and sanctuary.
And what makes us human is to go back to our basic principles, love one another and make meaningful friendships.
As human beings we have been blessed with abundance of gifts both tangible and intangible. Acceptance, forgiveness, sanctuary and love are all those gifts that if we put them into practice in our every day life, the world will be a more peaceful place, but unfortunately we mostly take these gifts for granted in search of material goods.
Ultimately, it is our ability to reach out to another human being to help is the best reflection of what is to be a human.
CAPTION: Sabir Zazai speaks with Mohammed Hussain, a refugee from Somalia during “Men’s group” – a time during the week where migrant and refugee men can gather to socialize, get something to eat and collect used clothing. Photo by Charla Jones for the Toronto Star.