Thursday, November 10, 2011

Reciprocity in Ramadan

It is said that the resting place of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) is the Ka’bah of the Ka’bah…

Time became still as I approached the resting place of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him).  I was in a state of observation and reflection. Here I was, having travelled thousands of kilometres away from home in Toronto to meet my Prophet in the blessed city of Madinah. Surrounding me were millions of people from all over the world – young and old, wealthy and poor, black and white, together depicting the rich mosaic of our ummah – miraculously unified in their expression of awe, humility, and indebtedness towards the Prophet as they approached his blessed grave. Everyone was in tears of love as they struggled to get the attention of the Prophet with their greetings of peace and salutations.

As the wave of people thrust me towards the Prophet, my attention turned towards him, recalling the incredible sacrifices he made to spread Islam, and his deep concern for us, as was reflected in his cries during his lifetime, “My ummah! My ummah!” That made me reflect on how he may be perceiving the current ummah standing before him. The answer came before me as I moved towards the graves of Abu Bakr and Umar (may Allah be pleased with them), the giants our ummah. It was as if the Prophet was telling me, these are my companions whose stature you should be aspiring to!

Blessings and peace be upon you O Muhammad! Peace be upon you O Abu Bakr! Peace be upon you O Umar!  

Time resumed its course as I exited the masjid.


My recent pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah during the last fifteen days of Ramadan will remain a memorable experience: Breaking the fast with millions of other pilgrims in the masjids; reciting the Quran with the Ka’bah in my view; performing tarawih prayers in the spiritual presence of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him); praying tahajjud behind imams with melodious recitation; standing in collective du’as that made my heart tear; clutching the walls of the Ka’bah while pleading to Allah; communicating to the Prophet in his presence; indulging in the blessed dates of Madinah; bathing in zamzam; participating in the collective completion of the Quran.

The trip, however, was not bereft of challenges.

Although I had performed the hajj and umrah before, I wasn’t anticipating the physical challenges that this trip presented. The dense crowd of millions of pilgrims crammed within the two holy masjids was larger than the crowd during hajj season, making it difficult to find a place to pray. And the naked sky, which offered no protection from the sun’s blistering rays, added to the intense summer desert heat. The fact that it was fasting season further compounded the physical demand of the trip.

The physical challenges were also met with spiritual challenges: The modern branded hotels engulfing both harams, the state-of-the-art shopping centres situated at the Harams’ doorsteps, and the chain restaurants littered everywhere obscured the holiness and historical significance of these sacred lands, despite the presence of the Ka’bah and the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him).

There was yet another, greater challenge – the challenge of working in harmony and cooperation with millions of other pilgrims. This challenge was complicated by the incredible diversity of races, languages, age groups, social statuses, temperaments, and attitudes that were prevalent amongst the pilgrims. Nevertheless, there was a common ground amongst the pilgrims that transcended their differences: the religion itself. Everyone was making the pilgrimage for the basic purpose of seeking closeness to Allah and to His beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him). This shared objective generated a human tendency that brought the pilgrims together…


There is a rule used in the science of psychology known as the rule of reciprocity. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: Science and Practice, describes the rule:

The rule [of reciprocity] says that we should try to repay, in kind, what another person has provided us. If a woman does us a favour, we should do her one in return; if a man sends us a birthday present, we should remember his birthday with a gift of our own; if a couple invites us to a party, we should be sure to invite them to one of ours. By virtue of the reciprocity rule, then, we are obligated to the future repayment of favours, gifts, invitations, and the like.”

This rule is critical to the functioning of human societies, because the reality is that humans need each other to survive, grow, and succeed, and these objectives can only be realized and perpetuated through giving and taking from each other. It’s the way businesses work, the way marriages work, and the way societies work. Without the rule of reciprocity, we would not only not be able to survive, but we would all be living in our own silos and unable to tap into the collective potential that Stephen Covey calls synergy, which refers to the rule that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – that one plus one equals three. Two people, in cooperation, can do more that what each can do on their own. But for the two to coexist in a long-term relationship of co-existence, there has to be an understanding of reciprocation.

It is true that some people will unethically use the rule of reciprocity to manipulate and exploit others, by giving a little to receive a lot.  On the other hand, it serves as a legitimate motivation for people to do things they normally wouldn’t do. I am more likely to help a person if that person helped me previously. I am more likely to work together with someone if I know that they will work cooperatively with me. And I may be more willing to help others if I also expect to be helped in the future.

The lack of employing reciprocity can also be used to explain the poor quality of one’s relationships with others. Do I take more than I give? Am I more concerned about how much I am receiving than how much I am contributing? Or do I even care about receiving and contributing? Does my perception of my reciprocation to others reflect reality? These are questions worth introspecting on.


The rule of reciprocity was visible everywhere during my umrah: Some people were handing out zamzam to the pilgrims. Others were making room for people to pray. Some people were handing out dates. Others would hand out tissue paper.  Others would spray water on people to cool them down. Everyone was trying to engage in some form of generosity to get back something in return – not from the person that they were giving favour to, but from Allah the Most Generous. This sort of reciprocity – seeking the pleasure of Allah through helping His guests, was a key driver in responding to the human challenge of co-existing with such diverse peoples, and brought out the good in everyone…

I’ll always remember the Indonesian brother who took me to his spread of iftar in Madinah; the Afghani who let me pray at the steps of the ahl us-Suffa, and then offered me Afghani tea; the Emiratis who fed me suhoor on the rooftop of the Makkah haram during  the 27th of Ramadan; the Egyptian who, without forewarning, poured ice cold water down my spine while I was baking under the afternoon sun in the mataf area; the Arab sister who was standing in the masa (place of sa-i) area offering zamzam to those making sa-i; the Kurds who offered exotic foods for iftar; the Indian who made room for me so that I could pray; the Algerian who smiled at me when I was getting frustrated; the young men who served iftar to millions of pilgrims… so many beautiful people, in such a beautiful place, in such beautiful times.  

Reciprocity is a core value of Islam. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him) said, Allah will not be merciful to those who are not merciful to mankind”, indicating that to be a recipient of mercy, one must extend mercy to others. In fact, reciprocity is a mark of the believer, as is reported in the following hadith, “None of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (Muslim). The Prophet (peace and blessing be upon Him) also said, “Charity does not decrease wealth” (Muslim), dispelling any fear of loss through giving.

Our beloved Prophet (peace and blessings be upon Him), was the master of givers, never saying ‘no’ to a request, and never ceasing to give. All he asked for in return was embracing Islam and pledging allegiance to him. It is related that a man approached the Prophet for assistance, and the Prophet gave him enough sheep to fill the space between two mountains. That person returned to his tribe and said: “Become Muslims! Because Muhammad gives with the generosity of a man who is not afraid of poverty. Ask The Prophet for anything and he will not say no!” (Muslim, Bukhari)

Peace and salutations upon my beloved.


  1. Subhan`Allah. It was wonderful to read about your experiences in Makkah and Medinah and your thoughts on them. Looking forward to future posts as well. May Allah SWT reward you and except from you and us all.