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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 26: Lessons from History



By Ziauddin Sardar

April 28, 2008

As we have already discussed, the Qur'an provides a message of continuity and contains many references to narratives, personalities and prophets familiar from the Bible, both the Old Testament and hence also the Torah, as well as the New Testament. In each instance these references are used to demonstrate that possessing divine guidance is one thing but preserving it, implementing it and living by it is something different.

What is being pointed out is that human beings are flawed, prone to error and can find innumerable ways to circumvent or divert God's good news to serve their own short-sighted ends. The Biblical stories are not only historical references; they stand as warnings about the challenges that will face the Muslim community, hinting at problems to come.

Once again, in this passage (al-Baqura 243-254) we come across the requirement to fight in the cause of God. The use of this term has multiple connotations that are not confined to warfare. Where self-defence in the face of aggression is called for, fighting for one's survival is permitted, though this has to be interpreted according to certain conditions. The end of this passage (verse 254) makes it abundantly clear that the struggle must also be applied to peaceful efforts to build societies grounded in justice and equity by expending the resources God has endowed us with - not just wealth, but commitment, energy, intelligence and knowledge.

The passage tells the story of the flight of Moses from Egypt and in doing so takes us back to the themes of oppression, migration and fighting for survival. The thousands mentioned in verse 243 are the children of Israel who were forced to leave their homes because of persecution and the fear of death. The Qur'an tells this story, and the stories of Talut and David and Goliath that follow, as short parables - not in the kind of detail we find them in the Bible.

Moses and his followers were in a double bind. The state of bondage in which they were kept in Egypt spelled a metaphorical death, a slow intellectual and spiritual strangulation.

But they also faced real death - orders had been given for their male offspring to be executed. Moses tries to persuade them to enter the Holy Land but they refuse. The Israelites end up wandering the wilderness, looking for an alternative home. On God's command, Moses orders them to fight and drive the Canaanites out of Palestine. But they refuse to fight; and as a result a whole generation perishes in the desert. The next generation overcomes the Canaanites, finds the promised l and and, in this sense, the Israelites are "brought back to life again."

Although the subject here changes from questions of marriage and divorce, as Madeleine notes, we are still on the theme of social transformation. The story of Moses is related to show that sometimes it becomes necessary to stand up to oppression, when we are "torn from our homes and our children", and the refusal to challenge oppression is not a viable option.

The story is meant as a warning to Muslims who had been driven out of Mecca and had been living in exile in Medina for about a year. Some of them were reluctant to fight, so the Qur'an draws their attention to this parable: follow in the footsteps of the Israelites and you will suffer the same fate. To safeguard your future, indeed to survive, there is no alternative but to give a "good loan" to God (verse 245), that is sacrifice your wealth, and "fight in the cause of God" (verse 244).

The brief mention of Moses is followed by the story of Talut, mentioned in verse 247, who is thought to correspond to the biblical Saul. The story in the Qur'an is not much different from that of the Bible (1 Sam 8:19-20). Saul, a tall, handsome chap by all accounts, is appointed by God as a ruler at the specific request of the Israelites. Indeed, as verse 246 makes clear, God was not too pleased by their demand - "appoint for us a king, that we may fight in the cause of God". Their wish, however, was granted. But the Israelites question Saul's appointment: how can he be our leader, they say, when he is not even wealthy, nor has the social status to rule over us? The Qur'an's answer, Madeleine, is quite explicit: it is not wealth or power or social status but intellectual and physical capabilities that should be used to judge who is and who is not fit to rule.

But Talut's appointment does not mean that rulers are appointed by God. Of course, "God grants authority to whoever He pleases" (verse 247), but to do that he does not have to tell us precisely who our political leaders should be. Rather, we are told the criteria by which we should select our own leaders.

Elsewhere in the Qur'an, we read that we should put our trust in those who are worthy of such trust (4:58), that is to say, we should choose our political leaders carefully and ensure that they are capable of delivering the goods in terms of justice and equity. I think one of the key concepts of the Qur'an, shura, has a direct link with democracy. The believers, we read in 42:38, respond to their God not just by keeping up their prayers but they also "conduct their affairs by mutual consultation." Shura, or mutual consultation, is how political authority is acquired in the "middle community" and how God grants authority to whomsoever he pleases.

I will have much more to say about Islam and democracy in a future blog. But it should suffice here to state that the Qur'an does not look at the powerful and the unjust with much favour. This is also evident from all that we have learned so far from pervious blogs about virtue, oppression, equity and the middle community. Thus, the suggestion that the powerful can lay claim to political legitimacy simply by virtue of their power is, in my opinion, a totally untenable position.

That the powerful have little legitimacy is also clear from the nextstory - that of David and Goliath. The powerful tend to end up spreading tyranny and strife and driving people from their homes and, as the parable emphasises yet again, it becomes necessary for the weak to stand up to them to restore order and justice. But the weak are also tested in their resolve: Saul warns them not to drink from a river, which represents the allures and trappings of power and the powerful. Instead, the weak are urged to rely on patience, steadfastness and wisdom as their instruments for subduing the powerful.

It is worth noting that when Saul became king he went through a transformation himself. A sign of his authority was the gift of tranquillity, or security as Yusuf Ali translates it (verse 248). The Bible suggests this was a transformation of the heart: "As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul's heart" (1 Sam 10:10). Significantly, the Qur'an locates tranquillity not in the mind but in the heart: "It is He Who sent down tranquillity into the hearts of the believers that they may add faith to their faith" (48:4). When the mind has had its say and all is said and done, faith finds its location in the heart. It is a tranquil heart that engenders sincerity, humility, respect, courage, and all the other virtues necessary for the exercise of power. The Qur'an seems to be saying that the ultimate function of power, political and otherwise, is to free the world from oppression and strife, and bring it "back to life again" by restoring peace and tranquillity.

The passage ends with a crucial reference to dissension and division of opinion which follows previous revelations to other prophets and suggests that such division is a human characteristic, one Muslims in history have not been spared. This reflection is a fitting prelude to what immediately follows and will be the subject of the next blog.

What verse 253 suggests is that divergence of opinion among human communities is part and parcel of the process, it does not preclude people attaining to faith, in history or now, but it is a test people can fail. It is not the difference of opinion we should be concerned with, but how we make choices among and between such differences of opinion, how we select the best path among the divergent views.





A question of legitimacy


By Madeleine Bunting

April 28, 2008

The first thing which strikes me about these verses (al-Baqura 243-254) is that we've moved from discussing the details of divorce, to political authority, leadership and war. It feels like quite a leap. Perhaps, Zia, you could comment on this sequence of subjects?

I may be misunderstanding these verses but my attention was caught by the way in which people questioned the authority of Talut, and how we are told that God chooses who he wishes to bestow authority upon - "God grants authority to whoever he pleases."

This seems to be problematic. Surely it could be used by the powerful to legitimise their position? They could lay claim to their right to rule simply by being powerful: God has given me power and you have no right to challenge it. Is this the point at which we should address the subject of the legitimacy of political authority in the Qur'an? There are many commentators who argue that strands of Islamic thought are incompatible with democracy and the will of the people, and that parts of the Qur'an are used to justify that position. Do these verses open up these debates?


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