By Ziauddin Sardar
June 02, 2008
We have reached the end of al-Baqura (verses 284-286), and it is time for me to admit I have found this exercise rewarding in ways I had not expected. Engaging with the Qur'an in this verse by verse, week by week wrestle with words and meanings has shown me what years of reading have not quite pieced together in such a clear way.
Let me explain. We began our blogs with the opening chapter, al-Fatiha, which is known as the "mother of the book" and is the basis of prayer for all Muslims because it contains the summation of what Islam is and teaches.
Then comes the longest chapter in the Qur'an. I now see that al-Baqura serves as the complete overview of the Qur'an's spiritual and practical guidance to humanity. So after the summation and overview the rest of the Qur'an returns to its themes to expand and explore what we have read in al-Baqura in more detail. It is proof positive to me that there is always more to learn by rereading the Qur'an. And in thanks for this insight, it seems only fitting that al-Baqura ends with the most human and humane of prayers.
This closing passage emphasises the absolute sovereignty of God, and restates the basic articles of faith. It clearly makes the point that all people, believers and non-believers alike, are ultimately accountable in exactly the same way for their own thoughts and actions. We are reminded that believers do not have an automatic right to forgiveness, forgiveness is earned. God will forgive or punish "whom he wills".
So the first principle that the Qur'an teaches the believers is about God's absolute sovereignty over heaven and earth and everything in between: "He has power over all things". We can understand ourselves, our human relationships and our relationship to the whole of creation only when we appreciate the supremacy of the creative power that brought everything into being, sustains it in being and invests it with meaning and purpose.
Belief in God is followed by conviction in his guidance; his angels, his revealed texts, and his prophets. The Qur'an emphasises that believers do not make distinctions between any of God's prophets but respect them all equally. What distinguishes the believers from those who do not believe is their constant search for forgiveness; and spending their days on earth in obedience to God and preparing for their final return to the almighty.
The Sûrah ends with a prayer which the Muslim community, encountering severe hardship in Medina, is urged to recite. I find the emphasis on human frailties in this prayer fascinating and significant. Believers can, of course, commit a sin knowingly. But the mistakes stressed here arise from unintentional error, faulty judgment or forgetfulness. These are truly human attributes. The point is not just that we need forgiveness, for sins committed knowingly and unknowingly. We also need to be aware that these very weaknesses are what make us human. Belief does not make us exempt from human weakness. Belief is the context in which we work to deal with our weaknesses.
The prayer comes in two parts. The first expresses certain desires on our part as God's creations: take us not to task if we forget or do wrong unintentionally, do not place on us the heavy burden that was placed on people before us, and do not overburden us with more than we can bear. It all ends up as a plea for the preservation of our humanity. The second, corresponding part, acknowledges God as our creator and asks for absolution: "pardon us", "forgive us" and "show us mercy". Together, the two parts not only define our relationship with God but also the nature of our humanity: our ability to be broken by afflictions, suffering and atrocities.
Which brings us nicely to what Madeleine rightly calls "greatest promise that the monotheistic faiths make": "God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear" (verse 286). This "burden" is not an earthly burden. It's true, as Madeleine points out, that the suffering, hardship and injustices we see around us can and do compromise human dignity and drive many mad with pain. This is precisely why we pray for freedom from such afflictions. And, as believers, we are duty bound to stand up and try to do something about them, to struggle constantly for the preservation of our common humanity.
The burden mentioned here relates to our individual responsibility to God. It is our final judgment, our accountability, which is limited by our individual capacity - and that includes our ability to do something about the untold suffering we see all around us. This is precisely why the verse goes on to say each soul "gains whatever good that it has done, and suffers its bad". We shall not be judged, the Qur'an tells us, if we do not have the ability to do certain things or are forced to abstain because of our lack of capacity.
The promise that the Qur'an makes, much like the promise of other monotheistic faiths, is the promise of hope: there is always hope of guidance and forgiveness. And the greatest hope of all is that the compassion and mercy of the all-powerful will be individual and personal, because we are known according to our capacities and the opportunities presented to us in life and judged only according to how we faced up to the problems and made the most of the potential of our times. God is absolute; and we are indeed creatures of our times. All we can do is to try our best to make things better by raising our aspirations to meeting the ideal of transforming society set out in the Qur'an.
The Greatest Promise
June 02, 2008
I think these verses (al-Baqura 284-286) contain the greatest promise that the monotheistic faiths make to their adherents: "God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear." This is an extraordinary claim and I suspect it has sustained millions and millions of people through their lives.
Simply believing this is true surely brings the strength to deal with terrible tragedies. But having once believed this great promise, I'm not sure I do anymore. Atrocity and suffering - the Holocaust, Rwanda, Congo - can and do break human beings. Souls are burdened with more than they can bear and it sends them mad with pain, as Shakespeare so powerfully describes in King Lear.