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 .
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].
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.