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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 41: Individual and Society



By Ziauddin Sardar


July 14, 2008


Why do Muslims so manifestly fail to practice these teachings? As there is no notion of original sin in the Qur'an, this cannot be an explanation. The simple answer, Madeleine, is that Muslims simply do not practice the teachings of the Qur'an even though they may claim to profess them. As such, we may even say that the Ummah does not really exist. The complex answer involves how the Qur'an has been interpreted in history, how it has been reduced to a list of do's and don't, and how it has been codified in Islamic law.

The basic proposition the Qur'an presents us with is that none of us is or can be an island. We might be able to imagine living on a desert island - but none of us would think that a realistic model for how we actually live. We exist only in connection to other people: our family, our neighbourhood, our community and country.

The term the Qur'an uses for "community" is Ummah. It's a concept much abused, nowadays. For extremists, the Ummah is some sort of monolithic entity that must be ruled by a global Caliphate. For some non-Muslims, Ummah suggests Muslims living in the West cannot be trusted, indeed represent a fifth column or potential enemy within, because they can never be fully loyal to the country they have adopted as their home. To me, both ideas are utter nonsense.

Both views fail to realise that Ummah is a moral concept. As we see from 58:7, when three people have a conversation, the fourth presence is God. In Christianity, as Madeleine says, the idea that Christ is present in community is central. But in Islam the moral glue that holds a community together is God. But both Islam and Christianity agree, Madeleine that the experience of God is to be found in relationships, in the connections between people, in how a group of people become a community.

The single most important implication of Ummah is not that Muslims are a global community, but that Muslims should be defined by how they become a community in relation to each other, other communities, and the natural world. The Ummah exists in the efforts we make in thought and action to live up to and live out the moral precepts of the Qur'an. Moreover, the Ummah is not a single cultural entity, as we discussed in a previous blog: it is composed of nations and tribes, colours and tongues, the purposeful units into which we are born. What unites this Ummah is common moral purpose. So this community does not follow the lead of any one group, such as the Arabs, but seeks to achieve the same moral ends through and within the diversity of all its constituent groups. As both concept and practice it is meant to be a demonstration of diversity within unity. In other words there may be many ways to achieve the same purpose, so long as the means and ends are consistent with the moral guidance and precepts of the Qur'an no one way is inherently better than another.

As practice, the ummah exists as far as Muslims follow the injunctions of the Qur'an. Muslims, we have already seen, are described as a "middle community" (2:143) - a balanced Ummah. By following the law of equity and establishing justice with dignity and compassion for all they become "the best Ummah singled out for people" (3:110). Being a community means that "the believers are brothers" (49:10); "the believing men and the believing women are friends and allies one to another" (9:71); and collectively they are as impregnable "as a building reinforced with lead" (61:4). The individual members of the community have responsibilities some of which are mentioned in 49:11: "Believers, no one group of men should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive names for one another".

The best individuals in this Ummah, the Qur'an tells us, are those who are the most pious and God fearing or have Taqwa (49:13).

It is the concept of Taqwa, I think, that relates individuals to society. Most Muslims think that Taqwa is acquired through prayer and devotion, reading the Qur'an and engaging in extra worship (Zikr, remembering God) in the middle of the night. Now, of course, Taqwa has this personal dimension, which is about strengthening our relationship to God. But I think Taqwa must also manifest itself through our human relationship, our relations with all of God's creation. As we strive individually to appreciate the attributes and nature of God so we must try in our own imperfect way to reflect these qualities towards all that is also part of what God has created. For me, Taqwa is a sign of how you treat those who are less fortunate they you, how loving and caring you are, how you display humility and respect, how you interact with your environment, how you participate in building a viable and dynamic community. And it is not something that you acquire or advertise; it is something that is recognised in you by others, the community and society.

The social activity that binds Muslim society together, what makes the Ummah the best community, is that it "enjoins good and forbids evil" (3:104, 110,9:71). Now, I must admit, that this is one of the most misused injunctions of the Qur'an. It is used as a charter by all self appointed moral supervisors who think they know what is best for everyone else. In its worse forms, we have the state-sponsored moral police harassing the citizens for alleged moral shortcomings in Saudi Arabia
and Iran. But the injunction has nothing to do with moral policing.






Does Islam Find God In Relationships?


By Madeleine Bunting


July 14, 2008

These are inspiring verses. In particular the verse 58:14 intrigues me because it is so close to the words of Christ who said that whenever two or three "are gathered in my name" he is there with them. The image is very similar here, wherever there are three or four people, there is God.

In Christian theology, this idea of Christ present in community is central. The experience of God is to be found in relationships, in the connections between people. Does this idea emerge in Islam?

As I read these verses urging respect to the mother who has given birth to you and urging communities to stand up for justice, I find it hard to understand what the explanation is in Islamic terms for how so manifestly, Muslims fail to practise them. Christianity has the concept of original sin and has often used the terminology of the devil and Satan to explain how Christians fall so far short. But what is Islam's explanation for the failures of its followers?



So What's The Substitute For Sin?


By Andrew Brown

July 16, 2008

Zia, I'm going to pull you up here because I don't think you have answered Madeleine's question; in fact I think you have talked yourself into a position where it is very difficult to answer. She asked why is the Muslim explanation for the manifest failure of Islamic societies to live up to their own high ideals.

You reply that the failure of Islamic societies to be moral is because they don't read the Qur'an properly. But this, it seems to me, just pushes us towards an infinite regress: why don't they read the Qur'an properly? Why should God supply such wisdom and then not ensure that it is understood? If you reply that the answer is free will, you have to explain why our wills should so consistently tend away from God as to produce the world we see. That is the phenomenon which Christian doctrine of original sin is supposed to explain. I still can't quite see what the corresponding explanation is in Islam.

At the end of your piece, you say that the injunction to "enjoin good and forbid evil" has nothing to do with moral policing. But I really don't see how that can work. If the community is a moral project, as you say (and I agree) then all its laws are also moral ones. Merely to enjoin and forbid without enforcement is ridiculous. So there have to be laws that govern immoral behaviour (shall we say drunkenly having sex with strangers on the beach). I'm not saying that the ghastly religious police of Saudi Arabia or Iran follow directly from the Qur'an. But a law or very strong social sanctions against adultery very well might and very strong social sanctions do tend at their extremes to involve legal penalties. It does seem to me that a Qur'anic view of morality demands laws much stricter than those currently fashionable in the UK and we shouldn't dance around that point.




A Response to Andrew


By Ziauddin Sardar


July 16, 2008

Andrew, you have made a number of errors in your attempt to pull me up! First, I did not say that Muslim societies are not moral because they don't read the Qur'an properly. That would be monumentally arrogant on my part. It would suggest that my reading is not only correct but the only correct one! It would also suggest that other possible readings of the Qur'an, some just as valid as mine, are wrong. What I actually said was "Muslims simply do not practice the teachings of the Qur'an even though they may claim to profess them". Something which is very different. 

When I say "teachings" I do not mean teachings about belief, rituals or worship - in this regard I have no complaints. But, however one's reads the Qur'an, some things are difficult to avoid: its emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, it insistence on justice and equality, its constant urging to think and reflect. What I am saying is that it is these teachings that are absent from Muslim societies. And that this is only one explanation amongst others - and we will explore others later, for example when we come to talk about Shariah. The explanation is complex and cannot be given in one blog. It is something that needs to be explored at a greater length.

Second, Islam is not Christianity. Why should there be an equivalent Islamic explanation of anything simply because Christianity offers an explanation? Of course, this assertion is equally true other way round: Christianity does not have to give us an explanation of things Islam explains. While it is good to draw parallels, and I have tried to do just that in this blog, we need to look at Islam on its own terms. However, here is another possible explanation: Muslims constantly pray "to be guided on the right path" because it is so easy to take the wrong turning: desire for all sorts of things including power, taking an easy option rather than the thought out difficult one, being influenced by the world at large - all these things play a part in taking us to the path of injustice and oppression. So while Muslims constantly give lip service to the teachings of the Qur'an their lower desires gets the better of them. 

Third, Muslims are not responsible for producing "the world we see". Indeed, Muslims have played little part in shaping the world around us (this is one of my constant criticisms of contemporary Muslims). However, they interpret the Qur'an, whether they follow its teachings or not, Muslims on the whole are believers in God. If anything, if you travel around the Muslim world, you will see that they are indeed quite obsessed with God. The secularised world, where the sacred is shunned and religion is mocked, is not a product of Muslims. It's a product of western civilisation that has over the last centuries tried to shape the whole globe in its own image. 

Fourth, injunction to "enjoin good and forbid evil" is about developing a moral conscious both in individuals and societies - and you can certainly do that without moral policing. The social side is about how you promote collective moral behaviour amongst believers through debate and criticism, consultation and collective reflection. And it is not just about adultery and the like; it is also about what kind of science policy we should pursue (a great deal of evil can come from pursuing the wrong one!), how do make sure that wealth is distributed in society (serious injustice can result by chasing wrong economic policies), and the kind of politics you pursue. The individual side is about how you raise your children, how you treat your parents, relatives and neighbours, how virtue in inculcated in the young. Now some of these things are amenable to law, others are not. But enforcement is not the answer: it's all about freely and willingly participating in developing a moral community. Morality is not something that is imposed; it is something you embrace.

So many errors in a short missive, sir!





A Guest Blog from Mehdi Hasan


July 19, 2008

One of the peculiar features of the recent rise in Islamophobia is the manner in which so many opponents of the Muslim faith try to pass themselves off as experts on the Qur'an. In the wake of the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, It shouldn't happen to a Muslim, which I commissioned for Channel 4, numerous critics on Comment is free and on the viewers' forum tried to convince me that the Qur'an preaches violence, terror and holy war. In my experience, such critics tend not to have actually read the Qur'an in its entirety, let alone in its original Arabic script, and prefer to rely on a rather disingenuous combination of mistranslation and misquotation.

A few years ago, the prominent Canadian-Muslim scholar, Dr Jamal Badawi, offered a prize of $1 million to anyone who could find any verses in the Qur'an which referred to "holy war". The prize remains unclaimed, as the Arabic translation of "holy war" - "harb muqaddasah" - appears nowhere in the Quran. In fact, the oxymoronic concept of "holy war" is Christian in origin and totally alien to Islam's holy book. The Qur'an does of course refer to the fabled concept of "jihad" on several different occasions, but "jihad" actually refers to a struggle rather than a war or a battle.

Frustratingly, the Qur'an is not simply mistranslated and misquoted by Islam's numerous detractors but quoted out of context too. In trying to understand such a complex book, context is everything - textual, theological and, perhaps above all else, historical. To wilfully misread the Qur'an and deliberately quote verses out of context in order to score cheap political points is both intellectually dishonest and morally offensive.

The verse, "Slay them wherever ye catch them" (2:191), for example, is often cited in order to prove the Qur'an's intrinsic bloodthirstiness. Yet the preceding and succeeding verses are entirely - and conveniently - omitted: "Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors. And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have Turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful." (2:190-193 )

So the Qur'an here in actual fact is instructing the Muslims to fight in self-defence, to stay within limits and to be forgiving and merciful if their enemies stop attacking them. Is there really anything extreme or bloodthirsty about this?

Another verse often quoted triumphantly by the Islamophobe brigade is the so-called "Verse of the Sword", despite the fact that the word "sword" appears nowhere in it (and, incidentally, appears nowhere in the entire Qur'an). At first sight, the verse does seem rather violent and belligerent: "Slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war)." (9:5) Read the entire ninth chapter of the Qur'an, however, and you quickly realise that this is not a divine command for Muslims to go out onto the high street willy-nilly and kill non-Muslims wherever they spot them.

Rather, it is a time-specific command to Prophet Muhammad and his followers to fight back against a particular group of pagan tribes who had broken their peace treaties with the early Muslims of Medina. As the Qur'an points out only eight verses after the so-called "sword verse", "Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Do ye fear them?" (9:13 ) This is not therefore a general instruction to all Muslims in all eras to go to war against all non-Muslims - nor does it sanction, in any way, unprovoked Muslim aggression against non-Muslims today.

The tragedy, however, is that Islamophobes are not alone in interpreting Islam's holy book in an exclusively violent and militant manner - a minority of Muslim extremists tend to do so also. Osama bin Laden's infamous 1996 Fatwa claimed it was permissible for Muslims to "spill the blood" of Americans and cited the "Verse of the Sword" (or verse of "as sayef", as he referred to it) in defence of this odious view. So, too, did the radical Islamist preacher, Abu Muhammed, who listed a whole host of Qur'anic verses that he claimed supported aggression against non-Muslims in a Channel 4 Dispatches, Britain under attack, last August.

Yet having read the Qur'an from cover to cover, in context, and in both Arabic and English, I firmly believe that it is a book which encourages peace, tolerance and freedom rather than war, aggression and the killing of innocents. So, despite not having a million dollars of my own to spare, I would like to extend Dr Badawi's challenge two steps further.

First, can anyone find a single verse in the entire Qur'an in which the word "jihad" is used in the specific context of violence, warfare or military action?

Second, can anyone find a single verse in the entire Qur'an which specifically sanctions the use of violence against women or children, against civilians, against innocent non-combatants of any shape or form?

In my view, it is time for the self-proclaimed experts on the Qur'an - Muslim and non-Muslim - to either put up or shut up on this particular issue.

Mehdi Hasan is an editor in the news and current affairs department at Channel 4



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