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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 11: Diversity And Difference: Part One



By Ziauddin Sardar


February 25, 2008

This long section (al-Baqura v40-141) seems to me to be essential to understanding the Qur'anic conception of religion and is vital for coming to terms with the plurality of religion in history and the present day. If Muslims are to play their part in making multi-faith, multicultural societies a lived reality in the fullest and best sense of the term, as this passage and others throughout the Qur'an insist they must, then here is where we begin to wrestle with the very human obstacles that must be overcome.

This is the first time we meet two themes which recur throughout the Qur'an: diversity and difference, the basic issues any multi-faith society must come to terms with. The Qur'an sets these issues in a complex context that puts an emphasis on mutual acceptance as well as continuity and commonality. Yes, Madeleine, I think you have got it exactly right - this passage is emphatic that the overarching duty of religion is the same for everyone, and therefore provides a means for people of faith and good conscience to work together.

However, it also provides us with some cautionary warnings concerning human perversity and its misuse of God's guidance. It warns that when religion becomes the basis of communal identity and it is used to define "us" and "them" it creates tensions and puts animosity where cooperation and collective endeavour should be our principal concern.

This blog, as Madeleine points out, deals with a very long passage. But its content is necessary to set us on the right footing for the next series of blogs dealing with verses that have interlinked themes. We start here with a long passage because it covers the most basic principles we need to master to live in and properly organise multi-faith societies.

Before I look at the themes in detail I think it is important to consider Madeleine's question about who this passage addresses. My answer is that the audience is complex and the very complexity provides us with essential keys to understanding.

First, and quite obviously, the Qur'an is addressing the prophet Muhammad and the small community of believers who followed him on his flight from Mecca to Medina. This Surah is the first to be revealed after the Hijrah, literally the migration, when the prophet and his small persecuted band of followers abandoned their homes and possessions. The migration in 622AD marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, whose dates are given as AH, after Hijrah.

Reviled and oppressed by the Meccans the prophet and his followers were invited to Yathrib, the city which then became known as Medina, by residents who had accepted the message preached by Muhammad. But Yathrib/Medina remained a mixed community. So the Qur'an also addresses itself to this population. Apart from those citizens who had embraced Islam there were Jews and Christians, as well as polytheists, those who still worshipped the various deities of pre-Islamic Arabia. And we don't need to be reminded of the tensions that can be caused by a sudden influx of migrants, especially ones with different religion and customs. Added to which the new arrivals were a source of potential danger since they were still opposed by the people of Mecca who regarded the new fledgling religion as an enduring threat to the prosperity of their city. This is the context in which these verses were revealed, the circumstances they address and of course the people to whom they are addressed.

But there is more. For this passage concerns itself with the history and development of both the Jewish and Christian religions. It refers to the past to help explain the circumstances of the present in Medina and guide the new community of faith, the Muslims, on how they should deal with their contemporary difficulties and operate to shape their future. And, as always, we have to remember the Qur'an is addressing itself to the whole of humanity for all time. What is being said in very particular circumstances has meaning and relevance for people everywhere at any time, including our present day. To get to the meaning we have to think through and with all these overlapping frames of reference. No single perspective is sufficient in itself.

This passage is shifting backwards and forwards in time, referring to specifics and universals and the understanding I take from this is that acceptance of plurality is a basic requirement. Diversity is a fact of life, a theme dealt with in many places in the Qur'an. Acceptance is based on two things: the presumptive perpetuity of diversity and that diversity is both intentional, part of God's plan, and a test to right action for all people of faith and good conscience.





What's The Message For Other Faiths?


By Madeleine Bunting

February 25, 2008

I was lost from the start on these verses (al-Baqura 40-141). I presumed that God is addressing Jews, but his request that they believe in the message and do not disbelieve it - is that an exhortation to become more devout Jews or a request that they become Muslims? I know that might be a daft reading of the verses but it's not clear to me. Then we run through in a succinct summary a series of Old Testament stories of the Jews - Moses, the escape from Egypt and the parting of the sea. What is the purpose here?

What was very clear - and it was a relief to feel I understood something - was verse 62: Muslims, Jews, Christians - all will have their rewards from God. Even a monotheistic sect, the Sabians, would have rewards from God. What all these believers must do is believe in God, the last day and do good. This is a statement of religious tolerance which is more far reaching than anything you will find in the Bible, and very impressive; I begin to understand why Karen Armstrong maintains that the great strength of Islam is its recognition of plurality and tolerance of other religions. It's a point which sadly is often obscured today; perhaps you can reflect here about the relationship between Muslims and Jews?

Also, I find some of the detail about parts of the cow striking a body to bring it to life (verse 73) pretty strange. In its time, it would perhaps have made sense but what are we to make of such references now? This was a long section Zia, can you tell us why you chose to put all these verses together?


URL of Part 10: