By Ziauddin Sardar
August 11, 2008
Brian raises two questions. The first is in reference to 6:165, where we are told that God "has exalted some of you in rank above others". This, as those who have been following this blog will recognise immediately, is not about, to use the words in Brian's Christian hymn, the hierarchy of "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate".
This interpretation goes against what the Qur'an constantly says elsewhere and the importance it gives to the notion of equality and human dignity. The rank in question is the rank of virtue: it's about righteousness and knowledge. Some of us excel in our good deeds over others. Some of us are more knowledgeable than others. The Qur'an repeatedly asks us to compete with each other in doing good and seeking knowledge.
Brian's second question is of perennial nature: "If nature behaves according to God's will, how do you account for natural disasters?" Before I attempt an answer, we need to look closely at what the Qur'an actually says about nature.
Nature is one of the major themes of the Qur'an and references to it occur in numerous places throughout the text. These verses relate nature first to God, then to humans. Nature is frequently used both to illustrate the power and majesty of God and suggests that far from being chaotic, natural phenomena they have stability and regularity and hence utility for humans. The Qur'an unifies the natural order of the cosmos under the single sovereignty of God and constantly urges us, as we have already seen, to study, understand and appreciate the order of things.
God, according to the Qur'an, is the absolute possessor of the universe. He is its merciful sustainer and unquestioned master. He has created all that is in it, and brings new things into existence, by his sheer command: "It is he who gives life and death, and when he ordains a thing, he says only 'Be' and it is" (40:68). His creation obeys his rules, or "laws of nature", which enables them to fit into the order of things: "He gave everything its form, then gave it guidance" (20:50). The emphasis on "life and death" in relation to creation, which occurs regularly in the Qur'an, is important. It suggests that while God is Infinite, his creation is not. Everything except God is "measured out" and created for a fixed period: "we have created all things in due measure" (54:49).
The idea of measuring here should not be confused with predestination. It implies that creation has a "finite" or "limited" dimension. And it suggests that there are patterns, predictability, dispositions and trends in nature. The universe operates according to rules (even though some of these rules may follow chaotic patterns), regulations (even though some of these may be based on random probability) and laws (even though some of these may be contextual). When the Qur'an refers to natural phenomena, the emphasis is always on ordered, well-knit, regular and predictable nature: "The sun, too, runs it determined course laid down for it by the almighty, the all-knowing. We have determined phases for the moon until finally it becomes like an old date-stalk. The sun cannot overtake the moon, nor can the night outrun the day: each floats in its own orbit." (36:38-40). The point being that only when natural events are seen as phenomena within an ordered and predictable universe can they be studied rationally and eventually comprehended and used for the benefit of humanity. Apart from demonstrating the power and majesty of God, nature is also there to serve the needs of humans. The earth gives way to the plough of the farmer and the winds bends to the sails of the seamen (43:10-12).
But nature is not there simply to be exploited and abused. Nature in the Qur'an is a religious, hence sacred, institution. The earth, "with its fruits, with its palm trees with sheathed clusters, its husk grains, its fragrant plants" (55:10-13) is there for our benefit. But it has to be treated with respect, justice and balance: "He has sat the balance so you may not exceed the balance: weigh with justice and do not exceed the balance" (55:7-9). The Earth and its environment have rights. And it's first right is the acknowledgment that we do not own it. We have not created it and hence we cannot own it. Rather, we have it on a trust from its rightful owner.
One of the most important notions in the Qur'an is the concept of a Khalifa. It is usually translated as "vicegerent" but I prefer "trustee". That human beings are Khulafa or trustees of God on earth is made clear in 2:30 where God tells angels: "I am putting a Khalifa on earth". (I am, with Brian, on the side of angels here!). The Khalifa comes as a representative of a higher authority. He or she has no exclusive right to anything. The function of trustees is to carry out their responsibilities diligently and ensure that the trust survives and thrives. As trustees of God on earth, it is our individual and collective responsibility to maintain the balance or harmony of nature, preserve and conserve the environment with all its flora and fauna, and treat all God's creation with due respect and reverence. The trust, maintaining the integrity of the earth and its environment, is a test from God; and we will be judged on how we carry out our responsibilities as trustees: "It is he who has made you trustees on earth and raises some of you above others in ranks, to test you through what he gives you" (6:165).
Looking after the environment, and maintaining harmony and balance between people and nature, is thus part of our function as human beings. When we fail in our custodianship of nature, we also fail as human beings and become strangers in our terrestrial abode. When we cease to appreciate the beauty of our planet we also forget our true origins and final destination. To be mindful of God, the Qur'an tells us, is to be truly close to nature.
A Non-Interventionist God?
By Brian Whitaker
August 11, 2008
Greetings, Zia. I am filling in for Madeleine this week while she is on holiday.
My first reaction to these verses was to be impressed by the beautifully poetic images of a divinely ordered universe, but then some troubling questions came to mind.
If nature behaves according to God's will, how do you account for natural disasters? Various Muslim clerics said the tsunami of 2004, for instance, was a punishment from God - an idea that I find hard to accept. Do you have an alternative explanation?
Leading on from that, I am confused as to whether God is regarded by Muslims as a continuing interventionist or whether, in the manner of an absentee landlord, he has simply provided the house and left the tenants to get on with it.
Verse 2:30 seems to suggest the latter. God announces that he will place a vicegerent/viceroy/caliph on earth (ie humans) and the angels protest that they will only make mischief and cause bloodshed. God retorts that he knows what he's doing, but I'm not so sure - I'm inclined to agree with the angels on that point.
One other thing troubles me about this Qur'anic picture of divine order: it can be used as an argument against political and social change. Verse 6:165, for instance, says God "has exalted some of you in rank above others". To me, this is reminiscent of that reactionary verse in the Christian hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, which treats inequality as part of God's plan:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.