By Ziauddin Sardar
January 29, 2008
The Qur'an has a great deal to say about how people of faith should relate to one another, as we will see in future blogs. But it seems to me that Muslims have been as bad as any other faith in turning the commonality and continuity declared by the Qur'an into an exclusive and excluding identity.
For me the point is, once you realise all faiths and moral systems have common threads that becomes the best basis on which to collaborate on putting faith in action, making the world a better place - a place of peace justice, equity, dignity and wellbeing for all. The message from God is not and should not be a brand name, certainly not a holier-than-thou arrogance that divides Muslim from Muslim, and all Muslims from members of other faiths. The history of continuity of God's message is and should become the thread that unites all peoples and communities in working for a better world.
What was revealed to previous generations is important (most particularly the Qur'an refers to the revelations to Jews and Christians). To understand the message of the Qur'an one has to see it against the background of the monotheistic faiths. In their own way, all these believers are struggling with God's guidance - with its narratives and metaphors, depth and complexity, and intricacy and enormity.
All people, not merely the God-conscious (see taqwa), will be resurrected and face God's judgment in the hereafter. As the Qur'an tells us elsewhere, in the hereafter the differences and distinctions about matters of religion will then be made clear to everyone. But God's judgment will concern not only what we believed but what we did, how we lived. All who lived well, who conducted their lives to the best of their ability consistent with consciousness of God's guidance, will be rewarded. Again various translations tease out the significance of God's rewards, whatever shape and form it takes. Prosperity, the term used in some translations, is understood more as a notion of wellbeing than worldly richness in others.
What of those who do not believe? I think it is important to appreciate that this verse does not refer to those who simply doubt - for doubt may be resolved one day, in favour or against belief. Most of al-Baqura was revealed in Medina, soon after Prophet Muhammad's migration from Mecca. So, in the first instance, the unbelievers being addressed here are the enemies of the fledgling Muslim community who were bent not just in denying the message of the Qur'an but on persecution and eradication of the Muslims. They are being referred to in the past tense: as those who have conscious intent and have deliberately resolved to deny the truth.
What about our own context? The world is full of doubters and atheists of all varieties - and quite a few have chosen to be my friends! For the Qur'an, and therefore for me, atheism itself is not a problem. We are free to choose: to believe or not to believe. But God consciousness is a commitment to a way of living that is or certainly should be dedicated to care for justice, equity and the dignity and wellbeing of all. Such concerns can be found as much among people of no faith as among those who claim to believe. Indeed, some atheists may be a better example of righteousness in action than many a believer I can think of!
In the here and now the practical concerns give us a basis for collaboration. In the final analysis it is God alone who knows all and will make the only judgment that matters. Or, to put it another way, who am I to judge? If non-believers share my concerns for making the world a better place then let's get to it! There are more than enough horrors in the world, and far too many of them created because people stopped to argue and create animosities about a matter on which God has left us free to choose. For me it's not just a case of "live and let live", though I certainly believe and uphold the principle; I'm for doing what is right by all people, irrespective of what they believe or don't believe and working with anyone and everyone who shares my objectives for a better world.
But the movement away from God is also a journey. And in their journey atheists can acquire, my friends included certain characteristics that can become problematic. They can, as the Qur'an tells us elsewhere, become arrogant (35:42-43, 39:59,45:31) and insist that their path is the only true path and all else is irrational nonsense. (Alas, I can already detect this tendency in some of the correspondents.) They can become self-satisfied and engage in self-exaltation (27:14, 38:2), praising their own position to the skies while denigrating, ridiculing or humiliating believers. They can, through political expediency or opportunism (35:42-43), try to privilege their own position in society. These and other similar characteristics gradually lead them to lose the ability to understand the very idea of religious truth. The "sealing" of their hearts, as an act of God, is a product of the baggage they have picked up in their particular journey.
Of course, believers too are not immune from these diseases - as we shall discover in the next blog.
And finally, we come to the first verse of this chapter which consists of three Arabic letters: A L M. Al-Baqara is one of the 29chapters of the Qur'an which begin just with alphabetical letters. The intention here I think is to arrest the attention of the reader so I am not surprised, Madeleine, that you were a bit thrown by it. This is a poetic device. Apart from that, in answer to Therese O'Toole, we don't really know what the letters signify. There is no evidence of the prophet himself referring to these letters. Muslims have interpreted them in various ways: some see them as abbreviation relating to God and his attributes; others argue that they illustrate the inimitable nature of the Qur'an; some others interpret them mystically, still others have read mathematical codes in them. I will simply echo the words of the classical thinkers and say: I know not. Only God knows.
From Goodness To Grace
January 31, 2008
Abdullah al-Hasan still wants an answer as to why Zia thinks he is qualified to do this blog. In his last email, Abdullah argues that there is an "Islamophobic agenda trying to re-shape Islam". He seems to be suggesting that Zia is colluding in it.
On the other hand, Noor al-Yaqueen offers, inadvertently, the best reply I can think of to Abdullah when she thanks Zia, full of appreciation of how he has "put so easily into words what I have struggled with." Zia is providing one co-religionist with great insight into her faith and infuriating another. One can see similar tensions in other faiths; it is not unique to Islam but this struggle - between traditional orthodoxy wanting to stand firm against modernity and those wanting to find a reinterpretation of the tradition - is fascinating.
For what it's worth, I've already declared my hand on this. I don't think Abdullah's analogy with the surgeon is apt. He argues that because we wouldn't let an untrained surgeon operate on our body, why should we listen to someone explains the Qur'an who hasn't been properly trained for the task. But religious wisdom and insight is not the exclusive privilege of the educated. On the contrary as many traditions make clear, the most highly trained can still be deluded. There is a wonderful Buddhist story of a monastery where the monks spent long hours studying texts and meditating but it was the servant who cleaned their sandals who reached enlightenment.