Running Red Lights

Some years ago, I got into a conversation with a Palestinian visitor to the U.S. Of all the new things he encountered here, he told me, one thing surprised him most. People here routinely stopped at red lights. They waited for green lights before they stepped on the gas. Not so at home, he assured me: there lights went on and off, but people largely ignored them – it was every driver for himself. “In the U.S.,” he marveled, “people stop even in the dead of night, when there is absolutely no one around, simply because the light is red. Muslims should be like that.” Since then, I’ve thought a lot about his comment.

A few months ago, I pulled up alongside a stopped car to make a legal right turn on red onto a small country road. My maneuver passed me through the large, comfortable shoulder of the main street. It was, however, not a proper lane – and the car that had stopped at the light turned out to be a police car. “Oh, hi, officer, was that illegal?” It was. Moving violation: I was served with a hefty ticket. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about that, as well.

My spiritual teacher once told me that one difference between divine and human law is that with divine law, ignorance of the law is an excuse. Allah routinely forgives us infractions against Allah for all sorts of reasons, including sheer generosity. This sometimes leads us to take forgiveness for granted – a dangerous state of affairs when the matter at hand is a matter of justice. For we have it on the authority of hadith that Allah will not forgive our infractions against each other:  unless the human beings we have wronged forgive us, our infractions against them will have to be paid back either in this world, or in the next.  Paying for what we have done to people while we are still in this world is much, much better for our health.

Yet there are all sorts of violations of law that are infractions against order, rather than infractions against justice (running red lights in the dead of night; right turns on the shoulder). These we tend to have mixed feelings about. Obeying such rules strictly often seems pointless, breaking them seems to harm nobody in particular, and having to pay for breaking them seems tyrannical and unfair. And indeed, sometimes it is.

But though unjust rules can certainly exist, most of the rules we are obliged to follow are not unjust. They are merely inconvenient – and convenience is not the highest standard for behavior. As my Palestinian friend pointed out, following rules has a certain kind of spiritual beauty. For a rule is a public agreement, and public agreements are the foundation of social trust. We can deal with each other so much more easily when we have a clear notion of what we may reasonably expect. Following the rules makes us trustworthy people. Only trustworthy people can form trustworthy societies. So maybe following the rules – most rules – is a matter of justice, too.

Yet we may realize this only in retrospect. Running that red may seem like nothing until we collide with somebody in the road.

Special problems arise when the existence of infractions is denied, and also when what feels like a mere broken rule to one party feels like a significant injustice to another. Here some sort of human decision process must intervene, and some sort of human decider must decide. Whether the law in question is shari`ah or traffic regulations, the situation is the same: a law is incapable of applying itself, and any human judgment may be wrong. Ultimately, only Allah knows our innocence and our guilt, and how serious our errors really are. May all our missteps turn out to be no more than moving violations in the grand scheme of things, and may our repentance meet with mercy.

– Chaplain Rabia T. Harris

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