By Ziauddin Sardar
February 04, 2008
The function of any revelation, in my opinion, is not just to make you feel good but also to agitate you and to take you through the full gamut of human emotions. How else can a sacred text, to use your own words Madeleine, persuade "us lazy, stubborn, egocentric creatures into the true, daily practice of what we believe" and think and rethink about our faith? So, the anger expressed in these verses has a purpose. Its purpose is to direct your gaze at the action of certain believers.
These verses (8-20), as you note, Madeleine, are very historically contextualised. The original hypocrites emerged during the Prophet Muhammad's time in Medina. And they are addressed directly in these and other verses of the Qur'an. So, in the first instance God's displeasure is directed against them.
But I think these verses have a great relevance today. Their relevance is related to your other point, Madeleine: that some believers use these and similar verses to justify their behaviour.
Of all the different group of believers, there is one that concerns me more than anyone else. Indeed, I think they should concern us all. The members of this group come in a variety of forms but collectively the Qur'an describes them as "hypocrites". They seek to deceive us through a number of means - signs of extreme outward piety, draconian emphasis on ritual, and obsession with knit-picking obscurantism. Frankly, I don't care much for such absurd projection of piety - there is absolutely no need, in my opinion, to wear your religious identity on your T-shirt. But what is particularly important is that this group seeks not just to deceive us mortals but also to "deceive God".
What does it mean to deceive God?
I think this has something to do with the nature of their belief. They do not believe like the "others believe" - the bulk of the Muslim community. But the point is they do have some sort of belief. They have, like all other Muslims, dipped their little finger in the infinite ocean of God's mercy. For most Muslims, engagement with God leads, or should lead, as I noted in Blog 6, to Taqwa which makes them cautious, watchful, humble and acutely aware of their social responsibility to the rest of humanity - the term incorporates all these meanings. But the "hypocrites", who do not start out as hypocrites, travel in a different direction. They think their appreciation of the divine gives them a special dispensation: they not only understand God's truth but actually imbibe it. Some go further and think they not only posses all truth but they are actually the truth. It is in this sense they are trying to deceive God though they themselves "do not realise it".
Not surprisingly, they regard the majority of believers as "fools". They think that their privileged position, with direct access to the truth of God, somehow makes them special. They are assertively self-righteous and display an aggressive sense of moral superiority: this is the "disease in their hearts".
All this leads to the will to dominate: they seek nothing less than to impose their monolithic notions of truth on all others leading to violence, strife and corruption. They are totally convinced that their actions are not only right but it is also right to impose their own path on others, whatever the cost. When the consequences of their actions are pointed out to them, they simply declare: "We are only putting things right".
The Qur'an uses a number of metaphors to describe their situation. They seek the light, but when all is illuminated they become blind. They seek signs of an approaching storm, but when thunder strikes they put their fingers in their ears. The theme and metaphors are repeated in Surah 63, "The Hypocrites". There we learn that simply declaring one's belief in God is meaningless. Believers should be judged by what they do here and now.
Now, I wouldn't dream of pointing a finger at anyone. But modern day equivalents of the hypocrites are all around us. Just look at their actions.
The distant "scenario" of the hereafter is a function of what one does in this world. The emphasis is as much on the action of believers in this life as it is on the judgment on the "last day". The point the Qur'an is making is that ends never justify bad means and it is a great illusion for any person or group to think they posses all truth. The goal of a blissful existence in the hereafter must be pursued with good actions, expressed in terms of what is truly human and humane, on this earth - the abode of our terrestrial journey.
How Can God Be Unforgiving Yet Merciful?
By Madeleine Bunting
February 04, 2008
Can I be really honest with you Zia and admit that these are the kind of verses (8-20) which I find difficult? Don't get me wrong, you find them in the Bible as well, in plenty, and they are just as difficult there so I'm making a point about monotheism in general not about Islam.
But they seem to me to encourage a kind of Big Brother version of God. And they make God sound unforgiving - this God who mocks the misguided and corrupt. How does that fit in with the merciful God the Qur'an describes?
You have a similar conflict in Christianity I think between the loving God and the vengeful God. But these aspects of monotheism are so troubling when we know how some believers use them to justify their behaviour. They also seem very historically contextualised; do they relate more to the circumstances of Muhammad's times when he was trying to found a new religion and sort out fake believers from the real thing? And do they still have relevance now?
I've always found the emphasis on the "last day" and the hereafter difficult. Why can't religious practice focus on the here and now, rather than far distant scenarios? Again, it's a question about all monotheistic faiths, not just Islam. How do you understand it?