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Monday, June 30, 2008

The continuity of God's message



All people, regardless of religious label, are guilty of holding the idea of exclusivity when it comes to their faith. Even if their practice is nonexistent, they would feel that their religious label is above those of other people, and become greatly disturbed when a family member leaves the faith and enters another one. One rather bizarre example of this can be found in an example related to me by a Muslim sister. Upon her acceptance of Islam, the sister's aunt became upset, and even struck her in the head with a Bible. Obviously, the Aunt had forgotten the various teachings in the book [aka the weapon] she yielded about forgiveness and mercy, this emotional reaction has little to do with religious sincerity, but rather family honor, embarrassment, and amazement that the Muslim sister had enough faith in God and the faith she has adopted to actually take steps to change her life from the prior manner in which she had been living.

This is not to say Muslims don't have these tendencies as well, indeed, these traits can be found among all people. The reason, in my view, is that we don't want to acknowledge that God's guidance is not restricted to "our own". The following Biblical verse is often cited to dissuade acceptance or even investigation of faiths other than the Christian sects.

John 14:6

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. "

Certainly this verse has been variously interpreted among Christians, but even accepting it at face-value, it does not negate God's message being continued and perfected by other teachers, Prophets and Messengers from Almighty God. If we accept one legitimate messenger of God, then we must accept them all. As Jesus was sent by God [that much can be accepted by Christians and Muslims alike], then the Biblical statement[if it's an authentic statement of Jesus] would still show the truth of our assertion above. Common sense should also come into play, if we believe in God, and accept him as the creator of the universe, of all peoples in our world, how can we say that God has favored one group of people over another, that he is un willing to send revelation, or communication, if you will, to figures other than those among the Jewish tribes in Palestine? That would indeed be senseless, especially in a world which, at that time, contained nations and peoples isolated from each other.

The Qur'an: the universal gospel

An honest reading of the Judeo-Christian texts and traditions show that its focus is mainly the Jewish people. The Old Testament, accepted by Jews and Christians as God-inspired, is mainly a collection of semi-historical narrative of varying accuracy. It does not seem to even allow the possibility of God giving spiritual guidance and assistance to those outside th Jewish people. While Monotheism [known as the 'Shema' to Jews and 'Tauheed' to Muslims] is certainly an important theme in the O.T., it still restricts God, whom they acknowledge as the creator of all nations, as a tribal or national deity!

The Qur'an, on the other hand, has from the earliest texts revealed acknowledged that God has sent guidance, in the form of messengers, Prophets and scriptures, to people everywhere. It has made acceptance of all messengers a fundamental principle, using very strong language regarding those whose acceptance is limited to one or two personalities.

Those who deny Allah and his messengers and [those who ] wish to separate Allah from his messengers, saying 'We believe in some but reject others', [those who] wish to take a course midway. Truthfully, they are Rejectors [of God] [Kaaferoon]....to those who believe in Allah and his messengers, and do not make any differences between anyone of the messengers, We [Allah] shall give their [due] rewards. Allah is forgiving, merciful [Q 4"150-152]

The above Quranic verse goes to the core of Kufr. That core is using religion as a national or cultural label, or viewing God as always being on their side. They don't want to be on God's side! This is not what God wants, and such behavior displays an actual rejection of God, their proclamation as believers is shown to be utterly hypocritical.

Muslim polemics often involve attempting to 'prove' that the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace, is mentioned or predicted in the Bible. Numerous books and tracts have been produced expounding on this point. While, as a Muslim, I do believe much of these assertions to be accurate, it should not be necessary to prove it through these means. I hate to say it, but sometimes Christians have a point when they ask us the motive for our usage of Biblical texts while rejecting the bulk of it as inauthentic. Instead of focusing on the similarities between Moses and Muhammad, or explaining that the 'spirit of truth' [John 16:13] refers to him, we should convey the message itself. That message is that of a pure and uncorrupted monotheism, one that serves as a clarification and a correction of prior assertions as to the reality of God, his messengers, and the Divine message. For example, the Old Testament actually has a narration in which God wrestled with Jacob, in human form, and lost [Gen. 32:25]. We should be asking 'How can God loose? More importantly, does it make sense for the Creator of the entire universe to be engaged in a wrestling match, in human form, in the first place'?

The answers are all there, in the Qur'an! It asserts that God does not take human form, that God is a force that has neither beginning nor end, that God is dignified and Noble, and that God is the nourisher of all. [ft.1]

To have respect for God means to see his laws, his creation, in a much broader light. It means examining the message rather than scrutinizing the messenger! It means following what is right and true, regardless of the source. It means placing God as the uppermost priority in our lives, and by that we will receive blessings and support that is unimaginable.

Footnote

[1] This issue has been dealt with in great detail in the Book The language of revelation. To obtain this volume, email waheed79@yahoo.com.





Sunday, June 22, 2008

Al-Qur'an: a liberal scripture?


Introduction

It is often imagined that Islam is a religion of extremism, rigidity and inflexible traditions. This picture of Islam is promoted in an effective manner by the mainstream media, and it is perhaps a Western misunderstanding of the many obligations that Muslims are indeed to fulfill, such as daily prayers, dietary restrictions, dress code and the like. Such actions stand out as unique and sometimes strange in a Western, secular-minded society that has succeeded in restricting religion, to a great extent, to Church services and personal theological convictions.

Perhaps taking the bait, many of us Muslims have bought the media's assessment as the correct one, indeed becoming extremely rigid in our approach. Of course, this is not really the right way at all, even from the point of view of the Ahadeeth. The Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be God's blessings and peace, is said to have always taken the path of moderation, of choosing the easier of any two choices 1. Examples of this rigid approach include a story I read about four years ago in a Muslim publication, discussing a similar theme, about a Muslim who actually, upon believing that music is Haraam [unlawful], would place cotton in his ears to avoid hearing elevator music 2!

Other, more well-known examples, include the very strict rules that governed the lives of Afghani women under the Taleban rule.

The Balanced community

The Qur'an teaches that Muslims are to constitute a middle nation, or a community of balance [2:143], one that is neither too far-right nor to the extreme left. Extremism, in any fashion, has been criticized by Allah himself. The practice of not marrying and living as a monk, we are told, was not ordained by God[ Q 57:27], thus was an unnecessary innovation, that does more harm than good. To have a balanced religion, it is necessary to approach it from a holistic sense. To have balance, one must examine one's one needs, realistic needs, be it personal or societal, by obtaining real knowledge of the religious texts, of the message of Allah as given in his final book, the Qur'an. Ignoring the current physical realities in pursuit of the idealistic may be commendable, but in the end a disservice. A good example of this is Interest. It is clearly unlawful, from the Islamic point of view [Q 2;275 and many other verses], yet, we live in a society where we need our loans, our mortgages, car notes etc..

As a balanced community, our scholars, Imams, leaders need to get together and offer alternatives, affordable ones, to the community. Alhamdulillah, there is indeed such efforts taking place, but perhaps the average Muslim living in the USA or Europe may not see the results anytime soon. But in the meantime we need to bite the bullet and attempt to take the lesser of two evils when we can.

A Balanced ideology

The Qur'an, the scripture revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over fourteen centuries ago, provides the essential doctrines that Muslims are to hold. Anything else appearing outside the Qur'an may be correct [or incorrect], but with Quranic beliefs, we can never go wrong. If the teachings given in the Qur'an are accepted by a person, then they are Muslims that deserve our recognition. Look at the following example:

The Messenger[Muhammad] believes in what hath been revealed to him from his Lord, as do the believers.. Each one (of them) believes in God, , His angels, His books, and His messengers. "We make no distinction (they say) between one and another of His apostles. [2:285]

Other Quranic examples of what Muslims are to accept theologically are given in 2:1-5 and 2:177. The actions that display this belief system are also given throughout the Qur'an, examples include 23:1-11, 17:23-39 and 98:5.


Qur'an, a source for liberalism?

A thought has been occurring to me, which has been difficult to express in words. I have realized that whenever a Muslim scholar, leader or activist [or just about any body] attempts to focus on the Qur'an for their guidance, more so that any other source, other Muslims will dismiss that person as a "liberal" or "Modernistic". This has made me wonder aloud if indeed the Qur'an teaches "liberalism" or "modern values"?

It is certainly true that these titles are vague in themselves, but nonetheless they seem to be legitimate queries. It does seem to me that while the Qur'an is very clear on certain issues, especially those of theology, it is deliberately silent on others. For example, in terms of governing, there is only one Quranic guideline , that of consultive and representative bodies Shuraa Baynahum, Qur'an, 42:38.If these bodies are set up, then by the Quranic viewpoint they are legitimate. In this regard, Iran, which is a republic, as well as Saudi Arabia, ruled by monarchy, have compelling claims to legitimacy under Islamic law [and indeed, both make this claim], despite their obvious differences in style of governing.

Allah has not forgotten to place something in the Qur'an at all. It is clear that God intends for humans to use our minds and creative genius, our collective gifts, to solve our own problems and create our own unique styles to deal with our lives, here, the example of government. "Democracy" itself is practiced differently, as between Western examples and that of Japan 3.


In other words, by not placing certain information or guidelines in the Qur'an, God wants us to use our own Ijtihaad. If we as humans [looking at a broad view] or as Muslims [looking at a focused perspective and interest] come to different conclusions and styles, this is still acceptable to God, and should be acceptable to each other. God has given humans varying colors, languages, cultures and mindsets, so we may learn from each other, copy each other if need be, so there is no basis for Muslims to dismiss other Muslims for disagreements on small issues as "innovators" "disbelievers" etc...! There is little "dogmatism" within Islam, either in its theology or its practice.

That does not mean that there are no guidelines at all. We are to accept God as one and alone, Muhammad as God's messenger and final Prophet, and offer our prayers in the way prescribed through Muhammad, etc..but in general, we have little "absolutes" within Islam.

The Qur'an acts as a constitution, a basis for theological belief and worldly practice, and all other sources. Ahadeeth, Fiqh, Seerah, Tareekh, etc. serve only as commentary and helpful aids in following the constitution that is the Qur'an. Nothing can be equal to the words of God Almighty.

Returning to the main theme, it indeed seems the Qur'an, fourteen centuries ago, taught what we now see as "modern values", freedom of religion,racial equality, the promotion of morals for the protection of society, are all Quranic principles. Of course, that does not mean that the Western values and Islamic teachings are in complete agreement, as Alcohol and gambling, for example,are forbidden to Muslims 4 .


Conclusion

The Qur'an is a book that deserves more of our attention. It contains much more than we give it credit for. It should not just decorate our homes and be on our lips at prayer time, weddings and funerals. It should be constantly read and pondered upon.

It is our hope that our non-Muslim reader would take the opportunity to investigate these claims, and if they are found to be true, to join the one billion strong Muslim community and fully gain from the word of God. But even if the reader disagrees, it cannot be argued that the Islamic principles, propagated in the Qur'an before Western political philosophers grabbed a hold of them, shines forth in influence nonetheless, that its light outshines all other lights, by its own sheer power [Qur'an, 9:33].

Footnotes

1. Sahih Al-Bukhari, Kitaab al-adab 73:147.

2. There are many traditions attributed to the Prophet which speak negatively about music. That is another issue altogether, beyond the scope of this post. We simply illustrated the example to show an extreme response.

3. See http://www.crf-usa.org/election_central/japan_democracy.htm

4. In Muslim lands, Non-Muslims have always had access to alcohol and whatever else they wanted, but for Muslims, such is clearly not allowed.