By Ziauddin Sardar
August 19, 2008
Moderation has two elements. First, moderation requires restraint in all that we do. In all the good things we do, from service to others to charity, we need to follow the middle path: "Do not be tight-fisted, nor so open-handed that you end up blamed and overwhelmed with regret" (17:29).
Temperance is necessary, the Qur'an tells us, even in worship: "Do not be loud in your prayer, or too quiet, but seek a middle way" (17:110). And we should certainly be moderate in what we say and what we do: "Go at a moderate pace and lower your voice, for the ugliest of all voices is the braying of assess" (31:31).
Second, moderation based on gratitude requires humility. Humility is the notion that perhaps we don't have the full story, the whole truth, the absolute certainty. The Qur'an declares unequivocally: "God does not love the arrogant" (16:23).
The advice not to "strut arrogantly about the earth" (17:37) refers not just to hubris towards others but also towards the flora and the fauna of the planet, the kind of built environment we create for ourselves and how we study and seek to understand nature. The Qur'an promises paradise to those who "do not seek superiority on earth" (28:83) and "call on your Lord humbly and privately" (7:55).
Humility, particularly personal humility, can sometimes be confused with weakness. Thus, just like patience, the Qur'an links humility with strength: "Seek help with steadfastness and prayer - though this is hard indeed for anyone but the humble, who know that they will meet their Lord and that it is to him they will return" (2:45).
Now the purpose of all this moderation and patience is not just individual salvation. Clearly, individuals will benefit, in this world and the next, by following the moral guidance of the Qur'an. But these moral precepts also have a social dimension. Societies too need to be moderate and patient, and shun the pursuit of superiority in favour of modesty and gratitude. The personal and the social moral imperatives lead in the same direction: the wellbeing of and harmony in society. The Qur'an challenges the individual and society to transcend their will to power and work together for the moral and ethical concerns of humanity as a whole. By answering God's call "to that which gives you life" (8:24) we can, perhaps, enhance our humanity and enrich life in all its exuberance and fullness.
As I see it, Andrew, faith is no gold-plated guarantee, nor is that what the Qur'an necessarily promises. You seem to have taken a purely this worldly perspective. The first, inescapable reality of faith is that this life is not all there is. The essence of belief in the hereafter, our continuation beyond this life, is exactly the reason for perseverance in doing as much good as you are able even in the face of the bad things that happen. Only if you lose sight of the hereafter is there a reason to give up when best efforts turn to dust in your hands.
Second, if bad things are a negation of the promise of faith and the outcome of gratitude to God, then faith itself becomes an entirely materialist proposition. And this is very easy to reduce down to the personal and individual counsel of self-satisfied complacency, the self-righteousness that says so much "good" done, so many reward points accumulated - I'm alright Jack, pity about you! In my opinion that is exactly where the Qur'an's insistence on the social dimension is so essential and so great a saving grace. When is the state of the world such that anyone can simple rest assured?
Faith is not a guarantee. We have free will, freedom of choice and responsibility for our actions on the basis of being limited human beings - people with a lot to learn. Faith is a guide to how to make things better, not a certainty because it is we fallible humans who have to make it work and keep it up and running. Faith is about the work we have to do, not what will be done for us because we have faith. If simply believing and being grateful were enough we would neither have free will and personal responsibility nor live in a world with other people equally free as ourselves. But having faith, seeing ourselves and our problems in a larger perspective, is a reason to persevere despite our personal failings and those of people around us. And that is something to be grateful for - given how bad things can get.