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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 23: Belief, Oppression and Good Judgment




By Ziauddin Sardar

April 14, 2008

At first sight, I tend to agree with Madeleine. Al-Baqura 204-218 is a complex passage and it is not easy to discover what exactly it is about and what it means. But then who said I had to understand everything? Or indeed that anyone had to understand everything when there is always something more to think about in the Qur'an?

With some effort and careful thought, however, I can see a line of reasoning from the opening, which is clearly referring to the demeanour of different kinds of believers, to the idea that all believers were a single community, to the section that returns to the issue of war. Let me try and unpick this.

We begin with people who are certain about everything, wear their religion as a divine warrant on their sleeves, dazzle us with their self-righteous rhetoric, and then do bad things.

I think here the Qur'an is directing us towards the fire and brimstone preachers. These are the people who constantly and obsessively talk about God, loudly pronounce their faith in him and invoke him on every occasion, but who in reality do nothing but spread mischief. They are led, more than anything else, by an arrogant certainty in their own convictions.

I find such people wherever I look in the Muslim world: listen to the speeches of some of our religious scholars, the declarations of the Taliban, and the rhetoric of many followers of the "Islamic movements". The real devotees of God, we are told in verse 207, do not advertise themselves. They give their life, quietly and earnestly, to "earn the pleasure of Allah".

The mischief-makers are compared with those who modestly, humbly and without fanfare do their utmost. The comparison prompts the reflection that all who aspire to faith and surrender to faith should model themselves on the latter not the former. But this surrendering does not mean you will be perfect; we can all expect to stumble, but we should understand that God knows our intentions. Faith does not make us perfect, but continual striving despite our failings and what stems from these failing is not a worthless exercise.

A favourite device of the "contentious ones" is attacking the faith and belief of others. But it is not just the faith of others, the non-Muslims, that they attack; their most vehement assaults are focussed on those Muslims who in their opinion are deviating from their prescribed path, or worse, who have left Islam altogether. In their eyes, apostasy is a cardinal crime, punishable only by death.

Amongst various kinds of believer are the ones who "slip back after clear proof". In this passage, those who leave Islam are mentioned twice. Those who "backslide" in verse 209 are told that they should know "Allah is exalted in power, wise". The second mention, in verse 217, is specific to Muslims in Mecca and Medina who were being persecuted relentlessly; and the persecutors were not going to stop "until they turn you back from his religion".

The Qur'an advices these Muslims that if they went back to their polytheism they will be losers both in this world, due to the eventual victory of Muslims in Arabia, and in the hereafter. It is interesting to note that in neither of these cases does the Qur'an suggests that apostasy is a capital crime - or indeed, that it is a crime at all! Frankly, if that was the case I would lose my faith.

The technical term for apostasy in Islam is Riddah; an apostate is called Murtad. The Qur'an does not, contrary to popular belief, prescribe any punishment for apostasy. In fact, it advocates total freedom of conscience, conviction and belief. Matters of faith are left by the Qur'an to individual conscience. Faith is something that is strictly between an individual and God: "For Allah guides whom he will to a path that is straight" (verse 213). Later on in this sura we get a much more categorical statement of the freedom of belief: "There is no compulsion in religion" (verse 256), which I will explore in a future blog.

Thus, everyone is free to believe or not to believe. To emphasise this point, the Qur'an tell us elsewhere that if God wanted everyone to believe, he would have created a world - a rather boring one in my opinion for I would have no one to argue with - solely of believers: "If it had been God's will, they would have believed - all who are on earth!" (10:99). Not only is one free to believe or not - one is also entitled to act according to whatever one believes and does not believe: "Say: everyone acts according to his own disposition: But your Lord knows best who it is that is best guided on the way." (17:84).

But more than that, the Qur'an acknowledges that belief is not a static phenomenon. There are those, we learn elsewhere, "who believe then disbelieve, then believe again, then disbelieve" (4:137). So there is a constant two-way traffic between believers and non-believers, and a shifting of lanes. Believers of one religion may turn to another religion. And believers of today may turn out to be atheists of tomorrow; and vice versa. But for everyone who turns away from faith, there is someone who turns towards faith: "Should one of you turn back from his religion, then Allah will bring a people, whom he loves and who love him" (5:54). There is a balance, of a sort, that is always maintained.

However, following God's guidance is not easy. This is demonstrated by referring to the example of the children of Israel - which also refers back to the arguments made in an earlier passage and discussed in week 8 - who having received revelation still sought to alter the message to their tastes and hence were punished.

Immediately after the reference to the children of Israel we meet another kind of believer - or, rather, unbeliever. These are the people who refuse to believe without the full sound and light show: demonstrable, tangible proof. They laugh at people of faith. Perhaps they suspend judgment about the message and guidance from God because they see that the believers, despite their faith, are not only fallible but are interested mostly in dazzling others with their self-righteous rhetoric? In any case, by the time definite proof arrives, in the hereafter, it will be too late to make the choice of faith.

Somewhere in history, all these types of believers and non-believers were a single community. This, in my opinion, has nothing to do with the "primitive social order" that Asad talks about in his commentary. I take this to mean that all humanity began with the same message that was given to Adam the first prophet. So everyone started with the same potential to believe, with same sense of values, but human society diverged.

In response, God raised up prophets to enhance and clarify human judgment - the ability to choose and discern between different courses of action. And still people disagreed about the meaning, implications and application of these messages from God. Yet in the midst of this God guides whom he wills. Not only have we the power to choose we also have the freedom to choose how we understand and respond to God's guidance and on the basis of the choices we make we will be judged.

Making choices and striving to live according to God's guidance is no simple option and often brings hardship and misfortune in this world: "do you suppose that you will enter the Garden without having first suffered like those before you?" (verse 214). Attaining the path of faith and following it is no guarantee of a blissful life in the complex muddle humanity has made of this world. But God's succour - the strength to be derived from faith in God, is always near. So perseverance is called for.

Then we come to the clincher, in the sense of the point this passage has been leading us to, at least as I see it. "Fighting is ordained for you, even though it be hateful to you" (verse 216). So I see this entire passage as relating back to the earlier discussion on war and peace (week 13). It deals with the proper reticence we should when contemplating violence and warfare and that while it might be "ordained" in the sense of being inevitable under certain circumstances it always come with limits and should be against what would normally be our better judgments.

We can hate something that is good for us just as much as we might love a thing that is bad for us. The judgment we have to make is determined by the conditions, the circumstances that make the last resort inevitable. These, as in the earlier passage, have to do with freedom, when people are being prevented from following their conscience and are being oppressed and are under attack for believing. And these verses have to be read in conjunction with verses 190-195, discussed in week 15: "do not commit aggression", as it is definitely not a blanket approval for fighting but rather an argument about the judgment that has to be made between two evils, in which case, "since oppression is more awesome than killing", it may be necessary to take the hateful option for the sake of the greater good. The oppression in question is defined by enemies who will not cease fighting until they have turned Muslims away from their faith, which in this instance would mean the world being deprived of the message of God's guidance and its potential to lead us to a better way of living.

Oppression can force believers, and indeed non-believers, into exile. So, towards the end of this passage, those who are persecuted for their belief and are forced to leave their homes are given hope. There is an obvious context here: the people "who suffered and fought in the path of God" are the early Muslims in Mecca who had no option but to migrate to Medina along with the Prophet Muhammad.

But I think we can generalise. The Qur'an advises those who suffer from religious intolerance to migrate to places where they are free to practice their faith. This is not just the way of the Prophet Muhammad but of most prophets. Abraham, who was threatened by his own people had to go into exile: "I will emigrate for the sake of my Lord" (29:26; also 37:99). Moses had to flee the oppression of the Pharaoh: "So he escaped from there, vigilant and fearing for his life, and said 'My Lord deliver me from these oppressors'" (28:21).

The Qur'an sees migration as a beneficial exercise. It is encouraged not just to escape oppression but also in the pursuit of learning. We have already encountered the other side of the equation in week 10: migrants and refugees are to be helped and supported. They add intellectual and economic capital to a community, fill gaps in the labour markets and contribute to the economy of both countries - the one they have left behind and one they have made their new home.

So, in the end, this passage wasn't all that difficult or complex. Was it, Madeleine?



A Difficult To Navigate Tract


By Madeleine Bunting

April 14, 2008

In these verses (al-Baqura 204-218) we have another warning it seems of "fake believers". It has interesting overlaps with the warnings in the New Testament of false prophets. Obviously this kind of warning is really important; we all know how people can profess great faith and their actions are exactly the opposite.

There is plenty of bad religion around. But I find the warnings difficult because there's no indication of how to distinguish between false belief and the real thing; does the Qur'an offer more guidance elsewhere? At the moment, the emphasis on this issue seems to generate a general sense of suspicion; it leaves one with a sense of nagging doubt as to how to trust other believers.

The verses 210-218 confused me. Here we seem to jump from point to point and each one is hard to grasp. Who is waiting for God? If God "provides immeasurably for whoever he pleases" why does he allow so many of the innocent to suffer? I don't understand this reference to "mankind as a single community" and then there is a series of unconnected statements touching on the suffering necessary to enter the Garden and what should be given in charity. It's all a bit confusing.


URL of Part 22:,-a-pillar-of-islam--part-two/d/12484