By Ziauddin Sardar
May 05, 2008
Here we come to the passage (al-Baqura 255-257) that for me is the heart and soul of the Qur'an. It begins with the verse that is second only to al-Fatiha in its familiarity to Muslims. Known as Ayat al-Kursi, the verse of the throne, it was considered by classical commentators to be the most excellent verse in the Qur'an.
It is a popular subject for calligraphy and in a great diversity of calligraphic forms is displayed in millions of Muslim homes around the world. And yet it is the juxtaposition of al-Kursi and the following verse that for me encapsulates the essence of the Islamic worldview.
Ayat al-Kursi is the most beautiful statement of the power and majesty of the Almighty. It reveals to us God as the creative and sustaining force behind all existence, the divine which is all-knowing and always aware, a ceaseless, un-wearying presence, conscious of each and everyone in all their activities - what we show as well as what we conceal, what we think as well as what we do, what has happened to us and what awaits us.
Such power and majesty can only be made evident to human beings by God. It is only by God's will that we can come to know aspects of the divine that are far beyond human consciousness or capability.
Knowledge is a crucial aspect of the divine. And the emphasis throughout the Qur'an on God's knowledge is reflected again and again in the impetus this gives to the exercising of human intellect to better understand and appreciate both God's creation and the meaning and operation of God's guidance to humanity. The word Kursi means throne, but it has become inseparable from the concept of knowledge. Knowledgeable and learned folk are referred to as "people of the chair", and this can also be seen as the origin of the professorial "chair". Many of the terms we associate with universities and learned institutions are derived from Arabic, a legacy of these institutions' origins in Muslim civilisation.
But what truly takes my breath away, and what Madeleine understandably focuses on, is the verse that immediately follows this most ringing evocation of the divine - "Let there be no compulsion in religion".
It is the most profound declarative statement in the Qur'an. It is not the business of any human being to coerce another in matters of faith or religion. The all-powerful gives us complete freedom to believe or not to believe, to follow whatever religion we choose. The ability to attain to faith is innate in human nature and the means to attain faith is provided by revelation. Only our willing and informed belief is the true measure of God-consciousness. By implication, for individuals or society to coerce people is to interfere with and arrogate to themselves authority over a relationship which can exist only between God and each individual soul.
What is being made clear, it seems to me, is that God is beyond any need or requirement. God does not need worshippers; it is human beings who need consciousness of God. Faith and religion, we are told, are based on recognising the distinction between truth and error; they are an exercise of reasoning and intellect, a work of knowledge as well as of spirit. Willing, informed and reasoned belief is laying hold of "the most secure handhold that never breaks", a phrase I find the most liberating, empowering and comforting in the Qur'an.
Religion that is free from all coercion refers to belief in God as embodied in the Verse of the Throne. The word for religion, and Islam's own self-description, is din, sometime spelt Deen. As these verses make clear, din is a way of knowing, being and doing, a way of life. What is more, this way of living, based on God-consciousness, brings God near to us, it illuminates our lives.
Muslims frequently say religion, their din, is a total way of life. What this means is that just as belief in God is a free, informed choice, so the consequence of belief is about making choices - seeking what is best for oneself, one's family, for society, for the whole of humanity and the world in all aspects and actions of daily life. And part of living one's din, since we cannot live in splendid isolation, is seeking out and working for the free, willing collaboration of other people in the project of making the world the best possible place. A reflection of this is that the Arabic word for city, the concentration of human cohabitation, is Medina.
A community organised by the consent of the governed, it seems to me, follows from the proposition of religion as a way of life embraced by the consent of free will. The distinctions that illuminate how to live are the values and principles revealed by God for human betterment that we accept as a consequence of faith. In opting for the light we willingly commit ourselves to working for justice and equity, and put ourselves on the right path.
The word used in this passage for evil is quite interesting: at-Taghut. The evil ones are those who exceed their legitimate limits, and arrogate powers, wealth and suzerainty that does not belong to them - leading to the worship of other things beside God. Evil is interfering with, distorting and turning to the wrong ends the free choices of free individuals.
There is little point in saying we have free will if we are not free to exercise the option to abide by the constraints of moral and ethical behaviour of our own volition. And of our own volition it is necessary to turn away from the excesses of intoxication with worldly wealth and power, from arrogance and indulgence, even from naked consumerism which squanders wastes and despoils the human spirit and the world in which we live. That is the light that leads us away from the darkness of ignorance and ill-considered, short-sighted judgements.
Why Do These Verses Get Ignored?
By Madeleine Bunting
May 05, 2008
These verses (al-Baqura 255-257) couldn't be clearer: "There is no compulsion in religion." How is it that this simple, bold statement has not been widely applied across the Muslim world?
It is something of a revelation to find this kind of clarity. Zia made it clear recently in his blog that the Qur'an does not prescribe punishment for apostasy. So how is it that in many Muslim countries around the world, Sharia law imposes punishments for apostasy? Can Zia give us some insight into how it is that precisely those believers who insist on literal interpretations of every word of the Qur'an can dodge the implications of these verses?