By Ziauddin Sardar
This chapter begins with a straightforward declaration that recognises the human capacity to doubt
January 28, 2008
Al-Fatiha ended with a request for guidance; al-Baqura begins with a discourse on the nature of guidance. This chapter, The Cow, the longest chapter of the Qur'an, takes its name from the familiar Biblical story of the "golden calf" narrated in verses 67-73. However, the cow itself is not the subject of the chapter. In keeping with the general style of the Qur'an this Surah deals with a number of themes, including the nature of belief, the temptation of evil, the wonders of paradise, and the articles and everyday practice of faith.
In reading the opening verses of al-Baqura, we immediately come to a cautionary note. English translations of the Qur'an differ, each giving slightly different shades of meaning and implication - as pointed out by a number of correspondents, including Richard Kimber. It seems to me it is not a matter of picking one translation over another; it is more a case of seeing the various constructions of English words offered by different translators as highlighting the many implications and layered meanings of the text. So, our reading of the chapter begins with the self-assertion that this is the Book, the Sacred Text, or Divine Writ; a guidance from God - of this we should have no doubt. Therefore, this is "the book in which there is no doubt".
The straightforward declaration that this is God's word recognises the human capacity to doubt. Throughout, the Qur'an takes doubt seriously. It is presented as a continuum which stretches from being an essential aid to belief all the way to a blinkered determination not to believe under any circumstances. Doubt is a function of our free will; we are free to accept or reject belief in God who speaks to us through the Qur'an. Repeatedly, the Qur'an engages with various kinds of doubt. It offers arguments to test our doubts and arrive, by a rational process, at conviction in the uniqueness of the Qur'an, the truth of its origin and the guidance it contains. For example, a little later in al-Baqura we read: "If you have doubts about the revelation we have sent down to our servant, then produce a single Surah like it." (23) The distinctive use of Arabic language in the Qur'an, unlike any other Arabic text, makes it inimitable and is testimony to its authorship, to its being a work that in structure and scope is beyond human capability. The text itself, when examined, questioned by a doubting mind, leads to the conclusion its origin is not human but a revelation of the divine.
In both cases, the Qur'an does not stop the readers from doubting but simply asks them to explore their doubts. So there is absolutely no reason, Madeleine, to feel intimidated.
The purpose of the Qur'an, we read, is to be a guidance to those described as Muttaqui, often translated as God fearing. However, I prefer the translations that give this as 'God conscious'. God consciousness, Taqwa, is a central concept of Islam, of which Muttaqui is a derivative term. What exactly does this mean? To the non-believer this is the hardest thing to explain, and for those who believe it is the basic premise of faith.
Taqwa, consciousness, is an awareness of the presence of God that is experienced intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. It is an awareness of the certainty and reality of the existence of God. It is the realisation, as the Qur'an says, that God is nearer to us than our jugular vein, knows and is constantly aware of all our actions, thoughts and motivations. The purpose of guidance is to teach humanity the meaning of this consciousness and how to live out, or live up to, the implications and consequences in each and every moment of our lives. Taqwa may be the basis of faith, the certainty on which belief is founded, but the real challenge is to incorporate this insight into all our thoughts and actions.
Taqwa is the moment of insight, the lived experience of knowing something beyond ourselves. Making sense of that consciousness, gaining understanding of the nature of God and establishing and operating proper relationships based on this awareness is the message of the Qur'an. Awareness of God affects how we see the universe, and all it contains; a natural outcome is how things are perceived, the connections made and the realisations this produces.
The opening verses of al-Baqura then give a concise statement of the five consequences of Taqwa that are the central themes running throughout the entire Qur'an. The five themes are:
• God is the self sufficient fount of all being;
• That the fact of God's existence as told by prophet after prophet is accessible to human intellect;
• That righteous living - and not merely believing - is the necessary complement of this intellectual perception;
• That bodily death will be followed by resurrection and judgment;
• That all who are truly conscious of their responsibility to God need have no fear.
Let's examine some of the connections made in these verses in more detail. It is this awareness, this taqwa, that leads to belief in "the unseen", that which is beyond our physical and material perceptions. Now, you need to take an inductive jump here, the proverbial "leap of faith". Those who are aware of God realise that human intellect has serious limitations. The Qur'an is lyrical about the potential of the human intellect - as we shall discover in future blogs. It is essential to the way we may come to know God. Faith is not the antithesis of reason, true consciousness of God must be the work of both. And only when our intellect and reason are fully engaged will we appreciate how to live righteously. But intellect cannot provide answers to all our questions, such as "what is the meaning of life?", "what is the purpose of the universe?", "what happens after death?", and in any case "why do we have to die?". This is where the "unseen" comes in handy; and belief, as commitment, Madeleine, becomes important for discovering purpose and meaning.
But belief in the unseen, which refers basically to God and the hereafter, is in itself not good enough. Belief is not simply about consolation, self-fulfilment or personal salvation. To be meaningful it must be transformative: it must live out, put into action as social, economic and political change to achieve justice, equity, the dignity and improved wellbeing of all of humanity. This is a key message of the Qur'an.
This is why the Qur'an associates belief with "establishing prayer" which is linked to giving generously from what God has provided for us as individuals and communities. This is how Muslims practise their mindfulness of God. I see prayer as more than simply ritual worship. If the human intellect is another way of understanding God, then it is also another way of worshipping him. The Qur'an also wants us to praise God by studying his signs - reflecting on nature, experimenting with the material world, promoting thought and learning. So, I see what God has provided in both concrete and abstract terms: wealth and property as well as knowledge and intellectual resources. Believers give generously from both varieties.
The Qur'an proclaims itself to be a distinctive revelation of God's word. However, those who accept the revelation to Muhammad are not the first to receive God's message. The Qur'an situates itself in history, which begins with God's revelation to the first human community, led by Adam and Eve. There has been a succession of prophets who have brought God's message to humanity; some are named but there have also been others who are unnamed. Indeed, the Qur'an asserts that no person anywhere in the world has been left without a prophet from God. All these prophets conveyed the same essential message, the basic five themes.
What Kind Of Faith Is Required?
These verses raise questions of belief, doubt and mindfulness of God, taking us straight into a series of major issues
By Madeleine Bunting
January 28, 2008
These verses are very rich and I'm not sure you're going to be able to cover all of them. I was a bit thrown by the first verse, which consists of three Arabic letters. Can you enlighten me as to what you understand of this?
Then we are straight into a series of major issues. First, the verse raises the question of doubt which I noticed one reader has already asked you about: what kind of doubt in the Qur'an is allowed - or, to put it another way, can you clarify what kind of faith in this book is required?
I found this stricture on doubt intimidating so I was struck by the gentleness of the next sentence in which the word "guidance" is used rather than the authoritarian language of commandment or instruction.
Packed into this verse is also the idea of mindfulness of God. Given my interest in Buddhism where mindfulness is the central concept, I wondered whether you might explain what mindfulness of God might mean to a Muslim and how they practise it?
I know it sounds basic but perhaps you could also explain what you understand belief to be. When this verse says believe in the unseen, what does that really mean? Karen Armstrong is one of a number of thinkers who talks about belief in terms of a commitment rather than the western idea of it as intellectual assent. What is it to believe?
A few other questions: can you clarify "what was sent before you" - is that a reference to prophets before Muhammad? If so, who? I felt very uncomfortable in the last two verses; are they suggesting God makes his believers rich? And why is it God who seals hearts of unbelievers (where is free will?) and then throws them into hell? It seems a bit unfair.