By Ziauddin Sardar
March 03, 2008
In the previous blog we saw how the Qur'an situated Islam as part of a continuous history of revelation going back through a line of prophets common to Muslims, Christians and Jews. Now we come to the definition of Muslims as a distinct community, and the definition of the quality this community should demonstrate: being a middle community.
I think Madeleine is absolutely right to focus our attention on verse 148. This verse reiterates the essential message of the preceding passage we examined. And I agree with Madeleine it is admirably clear: every community has its own traditions and rituals but their purpose is to summon us to "vie ... with one another in doing good works". Our differences, far from setting us at odds, actually become a way of enabling us all to work together for the overriding purpose of faith: living a righteous life on which we will all be judged in the hereafter. Setting this eternal and universal challenge to all people of faith in the midst of a passage that creates the very difference which will distinguish Islam and Muslims from other communities is characteristic of the style of the Qur'an - and I think it is highly significant.
Up to the point of the revelation of this verse, the Muslims faced towards Jerusalem during prayer. When in Mecca, and during the first 16 months of his stay in Medina the Prophet too prayed facing Jerusalem. Now, he is instructed to turn towards the Kaaba, the "inviolable place of worship", the house whose foundations were laid and purified by Abraham together with Ishmael. This change in direction unites the Muslims by providing them with a common focus and gives Islam a unique feature, distinguishing it from other monotheistic faiths.
The "foolish" among the Jews and Christians of Medina mock this change. The prophet has to explain this change in direction, known as Quibla, from Jerusalem to Mecca not just to the Jews and Christians but also to his own community. So, the Qur'an reminds him that faith involves much more than simply which direction one faces during prayer. It has symbolic significance, but it is not the essence of faith: "God's is the east and the west" (v142); or, as we read later on, "true piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west" (2:177). The real spirit of Islam lies elsewhere.
It lies in the Qur'anic description of Muslims as "the middle community". The word used here is wasat, which signifies the middle part of anything. It is the point equal distant from either extreme, the best part of everything. Thus the ummat wasat, the middle community, signifies a just, equitable, balanced, moderate people, who shun extremism of all types. It is their moderation which must enable the Muslim community to become an example, a "witness", to others - just as the prophet Muhammad himself is a model of modesty and fair dealing for Muslims.
So Madeleine, I think you have to remember that the whole of the Qur'an, with all its consistent and overlapping themes, has to be understood together. All that we learnt about diversity and its continuity in the last blog is relevant and continues to apply to reading this passage. It seems clear to me that while those who follow the revelation given to Muhammad will turn towards Mecca in prayer, the continued existence of other religious communities is implied once again in the verses you have difficulty with - only the wrongdoers among them will have an argument with the newly declared practise of the Muslim community. The sense here carries us back again to the detail of the preceding passage where arguing about why various religions do and think differently was presented as a distraction from the true purpose of faith, just as this passage also emphasises.
Aren't These Verses Contradictory?
By Madeleine Bunting
March 03, 2008
I thought verse 148 was amazing. Perhaps one of the most remarkable I am likely to read in the Qur'an. The way I interpret it - and it is admirably clear, it seems to me - is that every community may have its own traditions and rituals, but focus on doing good and God will bring you together.
The emphasis is unequivocal and even the language drives it home - race to do good; ultimately we will find the unity across different religious belief.
The problem is that no sooner had I read this verse which could stand as a manifesto for contemporary religious tolerance, than we plunged into the next verse which seemed a complete contradiction. Aren't verses 149 and 150 saying that you should become Muslims - whatever religious faith you had before? I feel I'm being bounced from pillar to pillar here, can you help Zia?