By Ziauddin Sardar
February 26, 2008
In this passage (al-Baqura 40-141) we find the clear presumption that Jewish and Christian communities will continue to exist. The Qur'an is pointing to the basis on which Muslims should understand and come to terms with the existence of these other religious communities and not fall into the all too human traps of responding as Jews and Christians in Medina did to the arrival of Muslims and the revelation of Islam.
The principal basis for acceptance is the theme of continuity. Prophet Muhammad, we are told, is not bringing a new message: the "new prophet" is retelling an old narrative. Three familiar names -Moses, Jesus, Abraham - are discussed not just to indicate the continuation of the monotheistic tradition but also to establish the fact that Muhammad comes from a long line of previous prophets. And the Qur'an is explicit in verse 136: Muslims are to believe the guidance given to Abraham, Ishmael, Issac
and Joseph and their descendants, to Moses and Jesus "and all that has been vouchsafed to all [other] prophets by their sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them."
Continuity, acceptance and respect for all prophets stand on the foundation of the Qur'an's most basic message. I could not agree more with Madeleine that verse 62 is crucial, it is the essence of the message: "All who believe in God and the last day and do righteous deeds shall have their reward with their sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve." How do we know this is the essence of the message? Because this same passage recurs several times throughout the Qur'an.
There is commonality in the guidance and warning God has given to all peoples. The basis of religion is the same for everyone. But, as this passage makes clear religion is not only the guidance from God, it is also how human societies have understood and responded to the message. We are confronted with the vexed distinction between what religion could, should and ought to be and what communities say and do in the name of religion, a distinction no less real in the time of Muhammad than it is today.
In reprising narratives familiar from the Bible the Qur'an states very real differences in how Muslims understand the meaning of the common message and the specific revelations granted to previous prophets. These are points of considerable distinction between Muslims, Christians and Jews. Clearly these differences were among the reasons the Jews and Christians of Medina derided Muhammad, questioned his mission as a prophet and sought to make him deviate from his mission. How we should deal with such religious differences is made clear in verse 109: "None the less, forgive and forbear, until God shall make manifest his will." In plural societies where there are competing claims to what is the truth of religion forgiveness and forbearance are the necessary operational ethics of mutual tolerance - for the full understanding of what distinguishes one belief from another rests with God and not human religious communities.
In retelling the stories of previous prophets the Qur'an highlights a number of warnings. A community can receive guidance from God - but that is no guarantee they will remain faithful to that guidance. The example of the story of the golden calf is given, but the point is more extensive. Throughout history humans have erred. In spite of worshipping the golden calf, a cardinal sin in monotheism, they were forgiven. The children of Israel are said to have altered God's word (v75), to feign belief (v76) and to have claimed immunity from hell (v80), yet they are forgiven. This is a reiteration of the forgiveness we saw earlier in the case of Adam and his wife in last week's blog. Thus, forgiveness is for all, right from the beginning with Adam and his spouse in paradise, to "those who follow the Jewish faith and the Christians", right through the line of the prophets to the people in Medina, moving on to everyone doing "righteous deeds" in our own time.
But it is not only a question of societies failing to live up to and live out their religion. The Qur'an is telling us forgiveness belongs to God and is open to everyone. But this passage dwells on the fact that recipients of previous revelations have made what should be open and available into exclusive and exclusionary claims to the possession of the only and whole truth. The problem here is arrogance. The word used here for arrogance - isakbara - is the same as the one used earlier to describe the behaviour of Iblis. Both Jews and Christians claim exclusivist notions of truth. All that God really requires from all believers is acknowledgement and gratitude, not an insistence that their route is the only route to salvation. Such arrogance can only lead diverse societies into animosity, tension, mutual distrust and worse. What the Qur'an repeatedly emphasises, is that all God really requires of humankind is acknowledgement and gratitude. And the only testimony to this acknowledgement and gratitude is to be found in doing righteous deeds which includes caring for our fellow citizens and all people no matter who they are or what they believe. It is only our actions which will earn us the reward of our sustainer - the very point on which this passage concludes - not arguments about theology which ultimately reside with God alone who knows all.
The examples from history, it seems to me, cannot be read only as admonitions to Jews and Christians, for that would be to repeat the exclusivist failings the Qur'an is at pains to point out. So I see this passage as a caution to the followers of the new faith revealed to Muhammad. They are also a warning to all subsequent generations whether Muslims, Jews or Christians. The problem is a universal one that arises from human perversity, which is not in the least exclusive to any community. We all need to be conscious of the true essence of faith, which this passage teaches: doing what is right.
And here it is important to note the second story of the cow that occurs in this passage. God asks for the sacrifice of a cow. But the community come back again and again to Abraham demanding more and specifics of the kind of cow to be offered. Again we are confronted by human perversity. A duty it would have been easy to fulfil if common sense had prevailed at the outset becomes almost impossible by seeking ever more technical conditions. What I see as the moral of this story is to beware the legalistic mindset in operating religion. Human beings can delight in splitting hairs and insisting on the niceties of fine distinctions without noticing how easily they are losing the needle of living faith in the haystack of religious ritual and custom. We can make what can and should be easy immensely complicated and almost impossibly hard to follow. And I find plenty of evidence of this among Muslims today with the endless desire for a fatwa on this, a fatwa on that, a reliance on a legalistic mindset that is often out of touch with commonsense and the complexities of the contemporary world.
I find this long and complicated passage immensely hopeful. It is a timeless summons to an open, tolerant approach not just to Islam but to living with diversity and difference in a multi faith society. It summons us all to the better angels of our nature. And if it is read in conjunction with the Book of Micah chapter 6, verse 8 in the Bible which reads: "He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly; and to love mercy; and to walk in humility with thy God," suggests we all have the basis to transcend our differences for the sake of doing what is right in the eyes of God.