March 04, 2008
Muslims have generally seen the notion of the "middle community" in geographical terms: conventionally, Muslim societies have occupied the global middle belt stretching from Morocco to Indonesia. But that, I think, is incidental. Anyway, Muslims now live all over the planet. Some commentators, like Sayyid Qutb have suggested that the notion of the "middle community" is a device for judging others: "the middle-of-the-road community", he writes, "stands witness against other nations", "it weighs up their values, standards, traditions, concepts and objectives, judging them either true or false" (In the Shade of the Qur'an, p175).
This idea, with its intrinsic sense of moral superiority, I think, is totally misplaced. As a device for making judgments its principal focus must be on judging how well Muslims fulfil their values, standards, traditions, concepts and objectives. In respect of other nations and communities, as we saw in the preceding passage (al-Baqura 40-141), the Qur'an commends and authorises, avoiding argument and majoring on forgiveness and forbearance.
It is important to note here that the Qur'an is not suggesting that Muslims are the middle community; rather, it is pointing out that Muslims can and should always strive to become a middle community. As such, the notion of the "middle community" is primarily a tool of self-reflection. It emerges from the Qur'an's frequent reminder to Muslims to be modest and moderate.
In the first instance, the balance that is being sought is between our physical and spiritual needs, the demands of the body and the demands of the soul. Both need equal nourishments. In the Qur'anic scheme, there is no inherent conflict between spirit and the flesh, the desire for sexual fulfilment or good food, and the quest for spiritual satisfaction. We cannot neglect either; but also we cannot become obsessed with one or the other. This much is widely acknowledged by Muslim scholars. But beyond that the notion of a "middle community" has to be translated as an all-embracing idea touching most aspects of our life and thought. It suggests moderation in our approach to religion per se so it does not become the sole marker of our identity, a totalitarian obsession that undermines common human values, and eventually leads to self-destruction. It points towards a balanced approach to reason and revelation, science and values, ethics and morality. It argues for a more respectful and humble approach to nature, how we look after and preserve the environment for future generations. It demands fair play, equity and justice in our economic activity and moderation in our politics.
However, the message of the Qur'an is one thing; how Muslims actually behave in real life and how Muslim societies shape and manage themselves is quite another. When I look around the Muslim world, I see not a "middle community" but a community of extremes - of obnoxiously rich and atrociously poor, of religious zealots and self-righteous chauvinists, of despots and demagogues. This is not a community with a sense of direction that turning towards Kaaba in prayer is supposed to provide. And it is definitely not a community that "races to do good deeds" (v148).
The "middle community" also displays certain other virtues as we shall see in the next blog.
Respect and Triumphalism
March 07, 2008
I was stung by a comment which argued that I appreciated Islam's tolerance of diversity because I was a Christian and the Qur'an explicitly recognises this as an Abrahamic faith of the book, as it does Judaism. The post argued that mine was a sort of - "I'm alright then" response. That was a complete misreading of what had impressed me.
The Qur'an explicitly recognises other expressions of religious faith as worthy of respect. This is precisely what is lacking in Christianity's history of triumphalism; I think you would be hard put to find in the Bible expressions of respect for any other faith. "There are many rooms in my father's mansion" said Christ and that gets you some of the way to the idea of tolerance, but it has always struck me as thin pickings. I've always understood that as the outcome of this persecuted religious sect struggling to survive and win converts. But its not a great legacy now.
So I find this acceptance of diversity very powerful: "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."
But the recognition of diversity of belief in Islam might go even beyond the Abrahamic faiths to those of no faith. This seems to me to be a key issue because the reality is that in western Europe we no longer live in a multi-faith society but a no-faith society. Can Islam recognise godliness without faith? In this verse, it seems it might be able to; there seems the possibility that God recognises all those who do righteous deeds.
This is a theme which Zia has been drawing out in recent blogs. That it is righteous deeds - caring for others, working for justice, compassion, generosity - which will bring forgiveness from God to those of any faith or none. He takes this one step further to define what it means to acknowledge God - not prayer or a process of intellectual reasoning but evidence of righteous deeds. He cites the Qur'an that all God wants is acknowledgement and gratitude - and what that means in reality is good deeds not lots of prayers and piety. It echoes the Christian idea that "you will know them by their fruit" - that true faith is evident by what people actually do, not what they say they believe or don't believe.
It's an approach of Zia's towards which I am very sympathetic. Belief has become a sterile theological territory in western religiosity and I fear this malaise has infected parts of Islam; it becomes a place to do intellectual battle about dogma, what one does or does not believe, but if one sees belief as the practice and commitment to good deeds...who is a believer? The lines are re-drawn between believers and non believers in interesting ways. But my fear is that Zia's approach is pretty unorthodox here - or am I wrong?
Two final points which both came from Buddhists reading this blog. The first admitted he had some concerns about Zia taking on the job of interpreting the Qur'an without training and cited his own Buddhist tradition in which teachers trace their teachings back through a clearly demarcated lineage which ensures the teachings are not distorted. This comes from a Buddhist understanding that wisdom is not something you can learn on your own but must be "acquired from someone who has got it". I think this raises a very important issue about the role of relationship and spiritual direction in a religious tradition. Perhaps Zia will come on to that in due course but my understanding is that Sufis have a strong tradition of such religious direction and of acquiring wisdom from someone who has it.
Finally, Heather Plant mentioned how in Tibetan Buddhists, teachings are said to have three levels of meaning - the literal, face value meaning; the inner level which requires some contemplation and study and the secret level which is very subtle and can sometimes take a very long time to grasp. I found that a helpful reminder that an information age equips us very well to understand this first as we skim and process vast quantities of information, but I suspect cripples our capacity for reaching the last two levels of meaning.