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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 15: A Balance of Virtues Hold the Key



By Ziauddin Sardar

March 10, 2008

How should people become a "middle community", and how should they demonstrate that they have achieved this? In what virtues and characteristics should their balance between extremes be evident? This passage juxtaposes two virtues that hold the key and I think provide the answer to Madeleine's question.


These verses (Al-Baqura 153-177) ask people who have attained to faith to seek aid in patience and prayer when faced with adversity. There are many people in this world who are tested by adversity, just as the Muslims in Medina were. And in our time, the world is only too familiar with refugees who have been driven from their homes, leaving behind their possessions and consequently know danger, hunger and the loss of the fruits of their labour. A large proportion of such refugees today are Muslims.

To those who are patient in adversity the Qur'an "give glad tidings". Is this evidence of what Madeleine sees as the stark dilemma of religious traditions that offer only fatalism? The question has always been posed and not just to Islam. But I think the question misses, or rather misconstrues, the significance of the patience to be found in prayer. In the face of adversity the first necessity is the fortitude to endure rather than succumb, and this, it seems to me, is exactly the aid to be derived from patience and prayer. The patience they summon is inner strength and resolve to face down the adversities of their situation. Despite their adversities the migrants to Medina were not passive and fatalistic, they were engaged in founding a new kind of society whose glad tidings were the possibility of living in a more just, equitable and righteous way. They are tested to the limit but faith is fortitude and hope.

The Qur'an provides an example of patience and perseverance by telling the story of Hager, wife of Prophet Abraham. Hager was left abandoned with her infant son Ishmael in the desert, between two small hills, known as Safa and Mawah, located a few hundred metres from the Kaaba, in Mecca. Dehydrated and distressed, fearing for the life of her child, she ran to and fro between the two hills looking for water. She kept searching and praying against all odds.

Her search and reliance in God was finally rewarded, when a fresh-water spring appeared in the desert. The spring is known as the well of Zamzam, it still exists today, adjacent to the Kaaba. This example of patience and prayer in adversity has been incorporated into the experience of Muslims down the years. Pilgrims to Mecca relive Hagar's search for water by running between Safa and Mawah, when they perform the hajj (pilgrimage), or Umra (lesser pilgrimage). The hills, now a long colonnaded building are within the precincts of the grand Mosque in Mecca. And pilgrims also collect water from the well of Zamzam, to take home as a principal souvenir of their experience in Mecca.

But then we come to the juxtaposition of another essential virtue necessary to the "middle community". I would suggest that the transition from patience to prayer to the virtue of the love of knowledge in verse 164 is crucial to realising how the fortitude and endurance derived from faith becomes an active, hopeful and liberating aid - and something quite distinct from and with no connection to fatalism. It is a consistent feature of the Qur'an to use this means to provide food for thought by making a relationship between attributes and virtues we might think about as separate contexts but which we need to understand as integral parts of following the right path.

The middle community consists of people "who use their reason" and study the natural world and think about the physical and material laws of the universe. Indeed, they even reflect on the ingenuity we as human beings are capable of ("the ships that speed through the sea"). By linking the practice of virtue to the pursuit of knowledge, the Qur'an makes it clear that uninformed virtue has little validity. There is no real virtue in being humble and ignorant. Real virtue is humility that comes from knowledge. So, ultimately, moral excellence, the shine on basic human virtues, is acquired through knowledge and learning.

Indeed, ignorance can still lead a virtuous community to downfall. The "men who take for worship others beside God" (v165) are not just idol worshippers in the prophet's Medina. They are also those, I would argue, who have idolised their leaders, religious scholars, and the ways of their forefathers (v170). These are the people referred to in the next two verses (166-167) as "those who are followed" and are "falsely adored".

This, I think, is of crucial importance for our time. Blind imitation of religious scholars (technically known as Taqleed), of yesteryear and today, is the norm in contemporary Muslim societies. A great deal of Islamic law derives from Taqleed; and a great deal of what religious scholars tell Muslim societies to do or not to do is based on it. Indeed, as Mohammad Asad points out in his commentary on the Qur'an, innumerable "legal" injunctions which have little bearing on the words of the Qur'an, prohibitions in excess of what the Qur'an says, false attributions, "attribution of religious validity to customs sanctioned by nothing but ancient usage", and absurd Fatwas have been issued "through subjective methods of deduction and then put forward as 'God's ordinances'" (The Message of the Qur'an).

There is no virtue in such blind imitation; and the Qur'an, as we read later, categorically denounces it: "Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true" (17:36). Instead, each believer is acquired to "use reason", pursue knowledge in its widest sense, and gain the ability for discernment on moral and religious issues. As this passage makes clear, the accountability on the day of judgment is individual: we will be asked what we have done not who we followed. Thus, the followers should look not "for one more chance in life" but towards their own critical faculties.

Critical acumen also comes into play in the discussion of "what is lawful and good on earth". The believers are told not to consume carrion, blood, swine, and that which has been offered as sacrifice to idols (v173). But the prohibitions here do not only apply to food; and the prohibition itself is conditional. In the case of an emergency or necessity, what is unlawful becomes lawful. The reverse is also true: lawful can become unlawful in certain conditions, if, for example, acquired through unlawful means, as we learn later (5:63). The term translated as "lawful" is Halal, which also signifies a praiseworthy thing or action; the opposite term is Haram, forbidden, or blameworthy. These terms have wide ranging significance that is seldom realised.

Both have permanent and contextual aspects. There are certain things, such as murder, cheating, backbiting, which will always be forbidden. But beyond that, these concepts connect ends and means - for something to be Halal it has to be inherently good and acquired through good means. So the fruits of theft, robbery, cheating, scam, bribery, nepotism, money laundering, monopoly, market manipulation and similar means are also Haram. There is a perceptive line in the brilliant Pakistani film In the Name of God, where a liberal scholar (played by Nasiruddin Shah) tells a court that Muslims are "constantly looking for Halal meat shops with Haram money in their wallets".

The "good" is defined in terms of "sustenance": only if it sustains not just our bodies but all that which surrounds us can it be consumed. As such, lawful things themselves may not necessarily be good: a "Halal" burger may be dripping in fat and a product of unethical farming practices. Ostensibly, the burger is lawful; but given the fact that it is bad for one's health, it ought to be unlawful. The injunction to eat of the good things, however, is not limited to specific foodstuff classified as "good". It has a far greater import: it is directed against the use of things which are injurious to physical, mental, social, cultural and environmental health even though they may not be forbidden by law.

Things change. What is "good on earth" in one particular context may not be so good in another context. As such, good is not always defined once and for all. It has to be constantly sought, re-established from context to context, through critical engagement. This is one of the most notable virtues of "a middle community": it adjusts to change, younger generations constantly question their fathers and forefathers, as society itself, and our moral consciousness with it, evolves and our understanding of what classifies as good changes.

Goodness, therefore, is not a manifestation of outward forms: it "does not consist in turning your face towards east or west". The Qur'an stresses the principle that mere compliance of rituals, or external forms such as beard or dress, does not fulfil the requirements of piety. Beyond belief, goodness is based on certain virtues: on patience (those "who are steadfast in misfortune, adversity, and times of danger"), on integrity ("who keep pledges whenever they make them") and on gratitude ("who keep up the prayer").

But goodness also needs to be translated into action. It manifests itself in the constant struggle for equity and social justice among the believers. The simplest way for an individual to seek social justice is to spend one's wealth in "the cause of Allah". Among the string of people one is supposed to help unconditionally - "to their relatives, to orphans, the needy, travellers and beggars, and to liberate those in bondage" - are two very interesting categories. "Travellers", or "wayfarers", refers to displaced people: those who due to circumstances beyond their control have been forced to move from their homes, are unable - temporarily or permanently - to return, and face hardship. It includes refugees, political exiles, asylum seekers, and economic migrants. In the prophet's Medina, those in "bondage" were clearly slaves. The Qur'anic injunction regarding slavery is simple: "liberate those in bondage", thus eventually leading to the abolition of slavery.

Historically, Muslims did not take this injunction to its logical conclusion. Today, however, those in "bondage" will include those trapped in poverty, people working for unsustainable wages, child labour, and victims of trafficking. Clearly, a "middle community" cannot tolerate such injustices.

When I think about this passage I cannot fail to call to mind a wonderful saying of the prophet Muhammad, which captures its essence and spirit. The saying is: pray and tie your camel. Prayer is not evidence of fatalism when it is the first step to using one's reason and finding just and practical solutions to problems.





When Should We Accept Our Lot?


By Madeleine Bunting

March 10, 2008

These are very interesting verses (Al-Baqura 153-177) and they capture very vividly a stark dilemma in religious traditions: do they encourage fatalism? It seems to me that there is a tricky balance to be struck between consoling people for their unhappy lot - and thereby helping them come to terms with it - and buttressing the status quo from challenge.

This verse sits squarely in that dilemma: on the one hand it says that God will test you with hunger and loss of property. This is God's will. It's the kind of fatalism which has undermined the struggle for justice many times in many cultures. I emphasise I'm not saying this is particular to Islam. When is the believer to accept their lot and suffer it - however much injustice and oppression it may involve - and when are they entitled to reject it and fight for justice? Do you see this dilemma in Islam?


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