By Ziauddin Sardar
July 07, 2008
Madeleine asks: "Why isn't this kind of astonishing insight more widely evident within the Islamic world?" The answer has two components. First, the Muslims are good at quoting the Qur'an but not very good at living up to it. Second, the current political conditions in Muslim societies, where despotism is the norm, and fanaticism is deeply entrenched, does not permit more enlightened interpretation of the Qur'an to come to the fore.
Equality is a recurrent theme of the Qur'an. All human beings are "the children of Adam" and have been "honoured" and made to "excel" (17:70). Furthermore, as God's creation we become truly human because each of has the breath, or spirit of God, breathed into us. Therefore, we all deserve to be treated with equality and dignity.
But the Qur'an goes on to make some more explicit points. All human beings, whatever their creed, race, class, and culture, are equal, we are told. And it is not just the individuals who deserve respect. The "diversity of your tongues and colours", we read in 30:20, are "his signs". So discrimination is forbidden not just on the basis of colour, but also on the basis of language and culture. The Qur'an insists that all languages and cultures are equal, equally important for maintaining diversity, and have to be valued equally. Thus Arabic is as important as, say, Swahili and Urdu, one language cannot claim superiority over the other. And the culture of, for example, Australian Aborigines is as important and deserving of respect as European cultures. One cannot assimilate the other; or relegate the other to the margins.
In the "diversity of your tongues", the Qur'an tells us, "there are messages" for those "who posses knowledge" (
30:22). What could these messages be? One obvious message is that diversity and difference is the very essence of God's creation. Everything exists in multiples and in diverse forms. Only the uncreated God is one. Another message, I think, is that diversity is a prerequisite for survival itself. When diversity is diminished - a language disappears, one culture is assimilated into another, flora and fauna are eradicated - we and our world are diminished. Difference makes it possible for us to exist and live in our terrestrial abode and thrive. Equally, it enables us to engage with one another, to recognise each other, and hence to know each other.
My favourite verse in the Qur'an, Madeleine, is the one that you mention, which introduces the idea of knowing through diversity. "O humankind! We have created you male and female, and made you nations and tribes, that you may know one another" (43:13) Recognition through difference does seem somewhat paradoxical, as you suggest Madeleine. But the paradox here is more apparent than real.
We learn about the world by coming to know the place where we are born, the people among whom we live - our family and community - and through the wider associations of our tribe or nationality. Differences of place, environment, of culture and all the elements of diverse identity are therefore necessary parts of the knowledge we need to care for the entirety of God's creation. To me the Qur'an is saying identity is central to our capacity as human beings to first know ourselves and through knowing ourselves as God's creation know other people equally as God's creation and learn how to extend to others the obligations and responsibilities, the rights and the duties we claim for ourselves.
The Qur'an clearly guides us to appreciate, to cherish and learn from the diversity of human identity and the positive contributions it makes to human existence. But as history demonstrates there is a catch. Human frailty leads people time and again to fall so in love with their own identity that instead of valuing diversity they make it into a source of fear. Other people become a threat. Preserving our own identity becomes a reason for war, for seeking to dominate and even eradicate other people. The Qur'an concludes the verse that explains the purpose of identity with the antidote to vainglorious nationalism: "the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of him." The competition between peoples of different identities is the common challenge to be conscious of God and live according to God's guidance, as we know and understand it. And if we abide in God consciousness we cannot disrespect, let alone harm, anything of God's creation no matter how strange or bizarre it may appear.
The verses dealing with human diversity move in tandem with the verses we looked at in the previous blog on religious plurality. Both lead to the same conclusion that difference is a necessary part of focusing on the things we can control to bring forth justice and equity on the basis of fair dealing, dignity and respect for all people no matter who they are, nor how different they are. But what the verses dealing with identity make clear is that we have to develop human understanding and knowledge to appreciate how this common objective can be achieved through the myriad differences of our different identities and ways of living. God consciousness is not one size and one way fits all, but how we can all in different ways achieve the same end by doing, thinking and being different.
It is a great step but through knowing the humanity of other people in all their differences we can also come closer to knowing God. By being conscious of the oneness and supremacy of God we should gain the supporting compassion and insight to know other people and respect them as they deserve.
When we reflect on all the human misery and bloodshed caused by racial hatred and nationalism; when we reflect that these horrors are not dead letters, things of the past but active deformities today in so many places around the globe; we can measure how far we fall short of true God consciousness whoever we are, wherever we live and however we worship. This much we do know. Clearly, what remains for us to learn is how to do differently by one another.
But I also detect that intolerance is on the rise in Britain as well. We live in a society where the foundations of identity seem to be weakening. Once multiculturalism was valued; now it is under attack from all sides.
We talk of multiple identities and "ethnic minorities" but we seem to be unsure of how we are suppose to "live together" while maintaining distinctive and different identities. And we also have a weakening of family structures and neighbourliness, the small scale units from which we learn who we are and from which we should advance to knowing other people. It seems to me we need a great deal of courage and inspired thinking to have the confidence to value the differences of our identity and go forward together to build a society where all these differences do not separate us but enable us to come together more fully as a nation. This is what the Qur'an is telling me. And this is, it seems to me, the real objective we should be working towards.
Tolerance, In Theory ...
By Madeleine Bunting
July 07, 2008
These are the real gems of the Qur'an. I like these verses a lot but I'm still mystified that a religion which has always had such an explicit script for pluralism and tolerance, has a history which has not illustrated such teachings - and often does not do so today.
The verses Zia has chosen are striking because they go so far beyond tolerance of the variety we have come to understand in the UK - which is, in fact, a kind of indifference.
The tolerance the Qur'an describes is a far more creative process and verse 49:13 exemplifies this. "We made you into races and tribes so that you should recognise one another." Now Zia, this is what you have to explain because it is fascinating. "We are made different so that we can recognise each other" is a paradox. What kind of recognition is this about Zia? And lastly, I'm sorry to bang on about this, but why isn't this kind of astonishing insight more widely evident within the Islamic world?