“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?”: The Democratized Utopia of Scriptural Understanding

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“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

Being a graduate student of the study of Religion, every day is an eye-opener for me – a stark reality check – about how much there is to learn and how negligible a proportion of it I have managed to know so far. Clearly, a two-year long degree programme was not going to make me an expert on the intricate matters of faith and, most certainly, I will not pretend that it has. However, perhaps not everybody shares my degree of self-doubt. Recently, I heard one of my class-fellows voice his opinion in the class to this effect: “We need to take the legal tradition of Islam from the scholars who have monopolized it and give it to the ordinary people.” This got me to ruminate the entire day on how problematic I find this opinion to be. This article is precisely a cathartic outlet to that very rumination.

I would like to believe that the speaker’s opinion came from a well-meaning place, but I wonder who is this ‘we’ who’s bent upon snatching the tradition away from the scholars? Is it not an alarming case of intellectual hubris when individuals in their 20s, with barely two to three semesters of training in a religious studies degree based in a Western institution not only deem themselves fully qualified to take the Islamic tradition away from the scholars but also believe that scholarly contributions to the tradition can be bypassed in favor of individual efforts and interpretations. Presumably, the aim of this endeavor is the democratization of knowledge. It is needless to say that this is not a novel suggestion. The Protestant idea of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, and the modernist emphasis on breaking the chains of centuries worth of scholarly tradition in order to eradicate the intellectual stasis is echoed on the other end of the spectrum of modern madness when enraged accountants and engineers convince groups to go on killing sprees based on their ‘interpretations’ of the book. The increasing radicalization in the Muslim world in the past century is the very fruit of unqualified individuals interpreting scripture on their own, without the requisite tools, bending it to all sorts of devious and heinous ends.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly concede that that the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is not a monopoly of the select few but a collective inheritance of the believers. On the other hand, I also firmly believe that that there has to be a systematic ethic with which this inheritance is to be viewed. Quran and hadith comprise not only of unequivocal general ethical exhortations but they also contain specific, legal, and deeply perplexing content, to comment on which scholars traditionally received training for decades within multiple religious sciences before they considered themselves qualified. And since everyone does not have the temperament, ability, or desire to possess these requisite tools, it is encouraged that when seeking clarity on crucial matters one asks those who do.

Certainly universal ethical principles can be consumed individually, but Quran and hadith are not entirely composed of ethical principles. How do ‘common people’ derive clear doctrinal precepts from scripture? Have they historically done so without utilizing the heritage of the scholars? Commenting on the verse 16:44 wherein the Prophet is reminded that Quran is sent down to him so that he may ‘explain it to the people,’ Taqi Usmani writes that “Had the interpretation of even this type of subjects (doctrinal issues) been open to everybody irrespective of the volume of his learning, the Holy Quran would not have entrusted the Holy Prophet with the functions of ‘teaching’ and ‘explaining’ the book.”

Even after the Prophet, Quran clearly encourages one to ask those who know and explicitly reminds that not everyone ‘knows’; undoubtedly, everyone is not at the same station of knowledge.

“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

“Question the people of the Remembrance, if it should be that you do not know..” (Q 16:43)

“And these similitudes We mention before the people. And nobody understands them except the learned.” (Q 29:43)

“Rather, the Qur’an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. ” (Q 29:44)

The classical intellectual heritage of Islam owes its existence to the works of committed scholars. In my modest opinion, a handful of self-styled modern religious ‘scholars’ who use and abuse religion for political ends must not lead one to discredit an entire tradition standing on the efforts, commitment, and wisdom of those authentic scholars – classical, post-formative, and present – the ‘heirs of the Prophet’ according to the famous hadith – who worked sincerely and relentlessly to preserve the integrity of this extremely rich and beautiful tradition.

Not only is Quran a difficult book, the hadith and sunnah are even harder: Ibn Wahb (d. 813), an Egyptian jurist who travelled to Medina to study with Malik ibn Anas, noted that he learnt so many hadiths that they began to confuse him, and if it weren’t for Malik through which God rescued him, he would have destroyed himself. Malik used to guide him to study some hadiths and leave some.

Islamic tradition has been and will remain, if any meaningful understanding of it has to be acquired, a tradition learnt under the guidance of teachers – under the shadows of the scholars. One of the modern sages who’s been my constant source of inspiration quoted these Arabic verses recently which I find most germane to this issue under discussion:

العلم انتقل من الصدور الئ السطور / ولكن بقي الرجال مفاتيح لتلك السطور

(at some point) the knowledge was transferred from the breasts to lines (of books) / but humans still remain keys to those books

And Allah knows best.

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The Great Creed of Inaction: The Use of Uselessness

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Oscar Wilde wrote the following incredibly powerful words in an essay titled ‘A Chinese Sage’ published in Speaker on 8 February 1890:

“There is also this to be remembered — that the prizes of the world degrade a man as much as the world’s punishments. The age is rotten with its worship of success. As for education, true wisdom can neither be learnt nor taught. It is a spiritual state, to which he who lives in harmony with nature attains. Knowledge is shallow if we compare it with the extent of the unknown, and only the unknowable is of value. Society produces rogues, and education makes one rogue cleverer than another. That is the only result of School Boards. Besides, of what philosophic importance can education be, when it simply serves to make each man differ from his neighbour? We arrive ultimately at a chaos of opinions, doubt everything, and fall into the vulgar habit of arguing; and it is only the intellectually lost who ever argue.”

This essay was a review, as well as an eloquent encapsulation, of the text by the great Chinese philosopher who lived around 3rd or 4th century BCE named Zhuang Zhou, or Zhuangzi. When I encountered this text, I was fascinated by the beauty and elegance of its ideas, but the idea I found most fascinating in the text is ‘the use of uselessness’ in that how conventional notions of utility are a negation of the intrinsic value of the world and there is something deeply valuable about uselessness itself, an idea that would appear radically counterintuitive in the excessively ambitious character of the modern world; which is why it does not come as a surprise that Wilde describes Zhuangzi’s text as “the most caustic criticism of modern life.” Young adults surrounded by society’s implicit expectations and family’s relentless exhortations “So, what are you accomplishing next?” would find Zhuangzi’s cheerful acceptance of passivity and resignation to be like much-needed and extremely liberating fresh air.

 

‘In the World of Men’ narrates the story of an old, gnarled tree which was deemed useless because its chopped wood would serve no purpose at all and so it was left alone by the carpenter. Later, the tree appeared in his dream to unravel that “a long time to be of no use … is of great use to me.” Profitable trees are chopped and maimed to derive benefits out of them, and “their utility makes life miserable for them, and so they don’t get to finish out the years Heaven gave them.” The carpenter suggests that the old tree’s uselessness is its protective asset and that it must not be deemed lowly because of it: “it protects itself in a different way from ordinary people. If you try to judge it by conventional standards, you’ll be way off.” For instance, by modern standards of material success, we may deem somebody as unsuccessful while it may be that they are in a state of spiritual contentment. Conversely, many humans find themselves miserable, deeply dissatisfied, and compromise their true potentialities by finding themselves stuck in an endless rat race. The carpenter implied that there is a value in that tree merely resting which can be taken to mean that repose entails a state of harmony with nature. So, a perfect man for Zhuangzi is “passive and accepts the laws of life” in Wilde’s words. In the same vein, uselessness also guarantees a life free of pain and grief: ‘Free and Easy Wandering’ depicts a yak that only “knows how to be big, though it doesn’t know how to catch rats. Now you have this big tree and you’re distressed because it’s useless. Why don’t you… relax and do nothing by its side, or lie down for a free and easy sleep under it? Axes will never shorten its life and nothing can harm it. If there’s no use for it, how can it come to grief or pain?”

I found Wilde’s review article to be extremely powerful as well as helpful in viewing Zhuangzi’s philosophy in contradistinction to modern human condition, for the modern “age is rotten with its worship of success” while Zhuangzi “has nothing to do with modern sympathy with failures.” He is “preaching the great creed of inaction” and is marked by an evident “contempt for utilitarian systems.” However, since Zhuangzi was writing around 4th century BCE, no one can accuse him of critiquing modernity, but we can conjecture that he was expressing his critique of the prevalent ideas of his age he found himself amidst. For instance, Confucian thought placed an overwhelming emphasis on structures and hierarchies and the need for humans to develop pro-active efforts directed towards changing self, communities, and governments. Zhuangzi’s philosophy opposes all these prescriptions for he seems to not only not endorse the role of governments, but he also seeks to keep the world original and simple, where humans are marked by attitudes of letting go, effortlessness, and equanimity.

“Kill them wherever you find them”: Violence in the Quran? The wise speak only of what they know…

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Following is the set of verses in Surah al-Baqarah, Chapter 2 of the Quran, that is often cited to highlight the so-called ‘controversial’ and potentially violent character of the Quran:

2:191: And slay them wheresoever you come upon them, and expel them whence they expelled you, for strife is worse than slaying. But do not fight with them near the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you there. But if they fight you, then slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. 2:192: But if they desist, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.

Many exegetes have suggested that these verses were revealed against the backdrop of Treaty of Hudaybiyah when many Muslims feared an attack from the Meccans. So these verses laid out the guidelines for a prospective combat. For instance, even though fighting was forbidden in and near the Sacred Mosque, Muslims were enjoined to fight back if they were attacked near the Mosque. It has also been argued that these verses are describing the limits of warfare by emphasizing 2:194: “So whosoever transgresses against you, transgress against him in like manner as he transgressed against you…” as a reminder that this is an authorization for a commensurate response to aggression, rather than a license for inordinate carnage. Aforementioned verses also appear strikingly similar to another set of verses from Surah al-Nisa:

4:89: They wish that you should disbelieve, even as they disbelieve, that you may be on a level with them. So take them not as protectors till they migrate in the way of God. But if they turn their backs, then seize them wherever you find them, and take no protector or helper from among them. 4:90…. If they withdraw from you, and do no fight you, and offer peace, God allows you no way against them.

Arguably, these verses were also revealed in a very specific context when a group of ‘hypocrites’ in Medina acted like war traitors, and thus their alliance was to be avoided. Again, the qualifier in 4:90 reiterates that if these deserters are not fighting against the Muslims, then peace should be extended.

Since these verses were revealed in very specific contexts, breach of a treaty or the imminence of a war, they have no universal import and hence they cannot be invoked during times of peace in order to justify the initiation of aggression. However, these ayat remain problematic because of what Lesley Hazleton refers to as the “yellow highlighter” version of reading the Quran: cherry-picking of isolated verses leading to misunderstood perceptions causing fear of Islam on one end of the spectrum, and the abused, de-contextualized misunderstanding of the text to justify violence, on the other. These are particular context-based verses which arguably come in contradistinction with the more universal principles such as the sanctity of human life (5:32, 6:151). This observation gives rise to questions about any measures taken by the traditional Quranic exegetical sciences to resolve tensions when a universal principle comes in conflict with a particular verse. Moreover, the presence of such verses also highlights the possibility that scripture in general, not just Quran, can be a dangerous text if approached without formal instruction, adequate interpretive tools, or historical background. As Huston Smith aptly notes in his ‘World’s Religions’ that Quran is not the kind of book that you would just casually decide to curl up and read by the window on one rainy evening. Traditionally, Suyuti (d. 911/1505) listed 12 disciplines that must be mastered for an individual to be considered qualified as a Quranic exegete: 1. Lexicology 2. Grammar 3. Morphology 4. Etymology 5. Semantics / Linguistic Pragmatics 6. Imagery and Figurative Language 7. Rhetorical Embellishments 8. Modes of Recitation 9. Theology 10.Legal Methodology 11.Circumstances of Revelation 12.Abrogation. This makes one wonder to what extent a modern, novice reader of this text is qualified to interpret its intricacies with the only  tool at his disposal being prejudiced ignorance and unapologetic hubris.

In this context, it also needs to be asked whether or not can the Protestant idea, of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, be extended to Quran as well.

I argue that the role of supplementary exegetical guidance is absolutely indispensable for Quranic readers, Muslims or non-Muslims, if they are seeking to develop any meaningful understanding of it or its so-called ‘controversies’ that do not live up to their 21st century sensibilities. The sciences of fiqh have developed stipulations such as asbaab (causes), shuroot (conditions), mawaana’i (restrictions), rukhas (licenses), and azaayem (firmness) to determine whether or not a decree in the Quran holds applicability in any given situation: khitaab-al-wada (the situational discourse). The necessity of these complementary interpretive tools ought to be all the more imperative when it comes to studying the Quranic decrees widely held ‘controversial’ because they highlight the historical character of the so-called ‘verses of the ‘sword in the Quran as well as the restrictions on their applicability outside of the context of their revelation.

Interesting, Quran itself seems to acknowledge the idea that the readers of the text can use it to do both good and evil; that the same message can both guide and mislead. 2:26: “… He misleads many by it, and He guides many by it, and He misleads none but the iniquitous.”  So, without the informed historical context and well-developed interpretive tools, most readers are likely to insert their own values, biases, and motives into the text, ending up potentially misguided and misguiding.

Upaya: Lessons from Buddhist Tradition about Skillful Teaching

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Sarah K.

Whereas Theravada tradition allegedly concerned its arhats with only their personal enlightenment, Mahayana tradition avowed to awaken and save all sentient beings. Thus, it is clear that Lotus Sutra’s emphasis is not on achieving wisdom, concentration, and nirvana merely for and within one’s own selves, which may be seen as arrogant or self-centered, but complete enlightenment entails that one strives to teach in order to awaken all beings. Now, one might wonder how to carry out this teaching effectively?

In this context I have been particularly fascinated with the idea of upaya or skillful means. Bhagavat Buddha explains that after attaining buddhahood he expounded the teaching extensively with various “explanations and illustrations using skilful means (upaya)” (970) to lead sentient beings to abandon their attachments. The necessity of upaya in teaching the Buddhist doctrine can be understood in the light of i) the unintelligibility of Dharma for a layperson, as Buddha explains Dharma is profound and hard to understand and ii) the varying capacities of humans in that “not all of sentient beings can accept it (Dharma)” (975). Humans suffer from various limitations such as “sentient beings are not aware, shocked, startled, or disgusted nor do they seek release” (973); “they have no wisdom” (979); “people have little knowledge” (981); and they have deluded sensory attachments. However Buddha teaches nirvana to all of them and everyone has a potentiality to become a Buddha. Hence, because of the abstruse nature of dharma and nirvana, and people’s varying capabilities to understand, the principles must be taught in terms in which the listeners can understand them. In the parable of burning house, being immersed in playing the children refused to listen to the exhortations of the elder man and leave the house on fire. The elder man, employing skilful means, enticed the children with the allure of chariots outside and succeeded to draw them out. Buddha entreats all his heirs, or boddhisatvas, to treat attached sentient beings as their children stuck in fire, where fire appears to be a symbol of worldly desires and attachments, suffering, or the samsara.

Within this parable, I found the multiple deeper meanings of skilful means extremely interesting: i) some individuals may find it difficult, owing to a different spiritual temperament, to grasp or believe the metaphysical expositions of Reality, in which case, in order to be fruitful, the preliminary teaching ought to ideally begin with straightforward yet striking ideas rather than true but complicated descriptions of Reality, ii) the elder man did not use his physical strength even when he had it (973) to drag the children outside and render them safe, rather he devised means out of which they leave the house, and their ill-informed attachments, out of their own volition. It may be taken to mean that strident sermonizing may not be useful in effecting a change of hearts from the outside, and an enduring change in humans is motivated mostly from within (even when personal reasoning inside one’s mind is triggered by an external stimulus), iii) the elder knew the children closely and thus was aware of those children’s fascination with chariots; so he could come up with such an effective strategy. Thus, a good teacher or boddhisatva does not teach with a cookie-cutter one-size-fits-all approach, rather he, being familiar that every student/disciple will have different dispositions, inclinations, and capacities, will cleverly frame his teaching whereby he will appeal to the different needs of different individuals, even when the eventual goal is the same.

The initial temptation after reading the parable is to characterize as patronizing or infantilizing, the tone of Buddha Bhagavat towards the laity in terms of some individual’s prospective lack of capacity or comprehension to understand or internalize the Dharma doctrine. However, it is perhaps more helpful to view upaya as a pragmatic tool to begin working with people where they are presently at and then gradually work the way up in unfolding the Ultimate Truth. If a tradition is presented starting from the end, it will probably attract little appeal and acceptance.

An Examination into Quranic Criticism of Jews, Christians, and Polytheists

N.B.: This was originally written for a class assignment.

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One of the recurrent themes in the Quran is that of prophets being sent in the past, by the same God, to various communities to guide them and the subsequent deviation of some among those communities from that guidance: “Mankind was one community; then God sent the prophets as bearers of glad tidings and as warners. And with them He sent down the Book in truth, to judge among mankind concerning that wherein they differed concerning it, after clear proofs came to them, out of envy among themselves” (2:213). Apart from this deviation, Quran also seems unhappy with the rivalries between Jews and Christians that must have been prevalent during the time of its revelation: “The Jews say, “The Christians stand on nothing,” and the Christians say, “The Jews stand on nothing,” though they recite the Book… God will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they differed” (2:113). Against this backdrop of divergence and rivalry, Quran sees itself as a final reminder attempting to correct what has been, in its view, distorted in the Divine message in the Abrahamic tradition. Additionally, it also sought to reform the polytheistic character of the milieu in which it was revealed. It appears to summon people towards what is believes to be the essence to every messenger’s teaching: monotheism. “We indeed sent a messenger unto every community, “Worship God, and shun false deities!” Then among them were those whom were deserving of error” (16:36).

A number of verses in Quran attempt to make a case for what can be seen as establishing Islam’s supremacy over past traditions and, by extension, directing disapproving polemic towards certain Jews and Christians, which is certainly not unexpected: If Quran had to establish its tradition as a corrective to the ‘distortions’ of the past, it perhaps felt pressed to be unreserved in its description and criticism of what and who, according to its view, were the causes of this distortion. Examining the specific beliefs and acts which Quran deems a deviation from or a rejection of the Divine guidance, this paper will analyze the critical outlook of the Quran towards Jews, Christians, and polytheists, and will also attempt to understand the motivation behind such outlook. It will also attempt to classify the criticism into two broad categories: i) theological criticism: criticism over alleged doctrinal innovation and distortion of Divine Message which presumably necessitated the Revelation of the Quran, and ii) polemic criticism: criticism over certain ‘wrath-invoking’ actions, independent of any doctrinal disagreement, serving as a tool for admonition.

Preliminary considerations

“And indeed We gave Moses the Book and caused a succession of messengers to follow him. And We gave Jesus son of Mary clear proofs, and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. Is it not so that whenever a messenger brought you something your souls did not desire, you waxed arrogant, and some you denied and some you slew” (2:87). This verse illustrates Quran’s honouring the prophets and the traditions they brought on one hand, and its simultaneous censure of some of the recipients of those traditions on the other. Before exploring the Quranic criticism of Jews and Christians, it is important to preface the discussion by making a case that rather than making a universal judgment of condemnation for every single one the followers of Judaism and Christianity, Quran seems to criticize those followers who either, according to Quranic perspective, distorted the message, failed to live up to God’s message to them, or collectively committed acts displeasing to God. This distinction is evident in a number of verses: “And [remember] when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel… Then you turned away, save a few of you, swerving aside” (emphasis added) (2:83). ‘Save a few of you’ implies that even though Quran makes a distinction between those Jews of ancient Israel who went astray and those who did not, it holds that most of them were in the wrong. It is perhaps the idea of majority being deviant which, in Quran’s view, necessitated its own revelation. Moreover, the verse “Neither the disbelievers among the People of the Book nor the polytheists wish that any good be sent down to you from your Lord” (2:105) alludes to the distinction between the ‘disbelievers’ and ‘believers’ among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). In the Quranic view, ‘upright religion’ to which Jews were called entailed monotheism, worship, and alms as exemplified by hanifs or primordial monotheists: “They [Jews and Christians] were not commanded but to worship God, devoting religion entirely to Him, as hanifs, and to perform the prayer, and to give the alms – that is the upright religion. Truly the disbelievers among the People of the Book and the idolaters are in the Fire of Hell, abiding therein; it is they who are the worst of creation” (emphasis added) (98:3-6). Arguably, those Jews and Christians who stayed true to this upright faith, as per the Quranic point of view, are guaranteed salvation by God of the Quran: “Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).

Criticism of Jews:

Following are some of the reasons of criticism of Jews this paper identifies in the Quran: a sense of arrogance and complacence about being God’s chosen people and excessive attachment to the world, distortion of scripture, transgression of Divine Law, and ungratefulness and fickleness.

  1. i) Complacence about being God’s special people, and attachment to the world: Quran repeatedly reminds the Jews of the favour God extended to them by emancipating them from slavery as well as elevating them above other nations: “O Children of Israel! Remember My Blessing which I bestowed upon you, and that I favoured you above the worlds” (2:47). However, Quran also reminds them that even though they had been blessed by God in the past, this should not give them a cause to be so complacent about the hope of being undoubtedly saved through prophetic intercession (2:122-3), for when Abraham inquired God about assuring eternal well-being for all his progeny, God qualified his covenant with Abraham by reminding him that “My covenant does not include the wrongdoers” (2:124). Thus, being historically chosen for Divine favour should not lead to a sense of arrogance and false security about eternal salvation regardless of one’s actions, Quran suggests. It can be inferred that Jews in Medina must have been outspoken in expressing their belief of Jews being God’s special people and therefore successful in the Hereafter, from the instruction God issues to Prophet Muhammad to tell them: “Say, “If the Abode of the Hereafter with God is yours alone to the exclusion of other people, then long for death, if you are truthful. But they will not long for it … You will find them the most covetous of people for life, [even] more than those who are idolaters. Each one of them would wish to live a thousand years” (2:94-6). In other words, if you believe you are saved in the Life after Death by virtue of being dear to God, why are you so attached to this worldly life and heedless about the next one? Quran refers to the Jews in Medina as ‘most covetous for life’ among all people. “It is they [these Jews excessively attached to the world] who have purchased the world at the price of the Hereafter” (2:86). The considerable weight attached to the eschatological themes in the Quran and its approach towards the finality of death and the transience of this life indicate why Quran would rebuke as deluded those individuals it finds excessively attached to this world.
  2. ii) Distortion of scripture: In its second chapter, Quran alleges that the Jews’ scripture is not in its pure form preserved as it was revealed, and makes repeated references to their deliberate distortion of the Divine word: “But those who did wrong substituted a word other than that which had been said unto them. So We sent down a torment from Heaven upon those who did wrong for the iniquity they committed” (2:59). “A party of them would hear the Word of God and then distort it after they had understood it, knowingly?” (2:75). “So woe unto those who write the book with their hands, then say, “This is from God,” that they may sell it for a paltry price. So woe unto them” (2:79). Quranic criticism of Jews allegedly changing their scripture over time, which it terms an ‘iniquity’, explains why God decided a Last Reminder was necessary in the form of a scripture believed to be purely the Word of God untainted by human redaction that He promised He will himself preserve and guard against corruption (15:9).

iii) Transgression of Divine Law: Even when God commanded the Jews not to kill of their own, Quran frowns on a murder committed by the community of Jews in Israel followed by them casting blame upon each other (2:72). God appears particularly displeased when the Jews, allegedly, killed their prophets (2:61, Matthew 23:37 also makes a reference to this killing of prophets by the Jews of Jerusalem). Moreover, 2:65-6 suggest that God was extremely wrathful when the Jews “transgressed in the matter of Sabbath” and so as a punishment, God “made it an exemplary punishment for their time and for times to come.”

iv)Ungratefulness and fickleness: The Jews of Israel were granted a special food by God, the manna, according to the Quranic narrative. 2:61 narrates that these Jews, supposedly blessed, complained to Moses that they “shall not endure one food” and that he should intercede to God to provide them with a variety of delicious foods, to which Moses responded: “Would you substitute what is lesser for what is better? Go down to a town, and you will have what you ask for.” Seemingly, as a consequence of this ingratitude to God’s blessing and greediness for better, “they were struck with abasement and poverty, and earned a burden of wrath from God” (2:61).

Quran also cites a number of anecdotes wherein Jews behaved with fickleness invoking God’s displeasure with them. In 2:246-7 it is narrated that the Jews of Israel asked their prophet to bring a king for them so they would fight in God’s way. However, when Saul was raised as king above them, the same Jews became resentful of him being made sovereign because of their contempt for his poverty and conceit for their own wealth. Save a few, most of them also turned their backs to fighting in God’s way in violation of their earlier promises.

In another instance, when Moses was away for forty nights, his followers took up a calf and began worshipping him at which the God of the Quran seemed disappointed but He chose to pardon them so that they be grateful (2:51-2).

Then “aforetime they (Jews) used to ask for victory over those who disbelieve – so when victory came to them that which they recognized, they disbelieved in it. So may the curse of God be upon the disbelievers” (2:89). This verse is seen as referring to the contemporary Jews living in Medina at the time of Quranic revelation. They were known to have been fighting with the idolaters trustful in the hope of an imminent messenger who would support their cause, but when that Prophet Muhammad began preaching, most of them refused to believe in the truth of his message. Quran views this all of this inconsistent behavior with stern disapproval. It can be argued whether Quran expected, from Jews and Christians of Arabia, ‘religious conversion’ to Islam in complete and modern sense, or merely a belief in the truth of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood and message while retaining their own identities. For them, the latter probably meant the former which explains their hesitation to believe in Prophet Muhammad.

Criticism of Christians:

Quranic criticism directed towards Christians does not appear to be as elaborate as that for the Jews. It mainly pertains to the doctrinal points of their ascribing the status of God’s Son to Jesus, the idea of Trinity, and their alleged alteration of their scripture as well.

Quran views the Christian idea of ‘incarnational sonship’ (viewing Jesus as God’s word made flesh and His son simultaneously) with disapproval because it goes against not only the absolute monotheism of Islam but also one of its fundamental ideas that God does not beget children (112:3). Quran acknowledges the truthfulness of Jesus as a Prophet, grants him an exalted position (4:171), and prefers him above other prophets by degrees (2:253), but it describes asserting the idea that God has taken a son as a “terrible thing” (19:89). This is because the idea of sonship of Jesus tampers with the Quranic idea of the wholly otherness of the God: “That is Jesus son of Mary – a statement of truth, which they doubt. It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him!” (19:34-5, also 2:116). Quran’s rejection of idea in Christian doctrine of Jesus’ sonship comes out of its believing that Christians view this concept in a literal sense. It can be argued whether this idea is a popular perception, or a normative concept: whether Christian theologians treat this idea literally (For instance, many Christian theologians consider the word ‘begotten’ son in the Gospel of John (1:18) as a later interpolation) or simply as a reality which cannot be taken in a physical sense. In any case, Quran discourages parental images for God, and does not employ them even metaphorically.

Christian view of Trinity is also explicitly criticized: “So believe in God and His messengers, and say not “Three.” Refrain! It is better for you. God is only one God (4:171).” Quran assumes this doctrine to be also in violation of the uncompromising tawhid that Islam stands for. It will be beyond the scope of this paper to examine the normative view of Trinity but it is interesting to point out that some formulations of the Trinitarian doctrine claim to both assert and preserve God’s unity, viewing God one and three at the same time, simultaneously manifested in the idea of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Quran’s insistence on Oneness, however, leaves no room for any such triune symbols.

Like Jews, Christians are also accused of losing or changing their scripture, some of it may have been a result of innocent forgetfulness: “they forgot part of that whereof they were reminded (5:14)” and some of deliberate concealment: “Our Messenger has come unto you, making clear to you much of what you once hid of the Book (5:15).”

Before we go on to examine the significance of this criticism, it will be important to examine Quran’s view of Abraham. Quran strives to distinguish itself from both Jews and Christians and claim the symbol of Abraham for itself. God tells the Prophet Muhammad that Jews and Christians will only be happy with him if he follows their creed (2:120), and he is commanded to respond to them by saying “Rather [ours is] the creed of Abraham, a hanif” (2:135). When the Jews and Christians claimed that prophets including Abraham were Jews or Christians, the Prophet was instructed to rhetorically ask if they believe they know more than God (2:140). This implies that the God of the Quran does not consider Abraham to be Jew or a Christian, but simply a hanif, a primordial monotheist, and the Muslims to be the true followers of his creed. In light of this contest to claim the symbol of Abraham, it does not come as a surprise that Muslims are required to send blessings on Abraham five times a day during their ritual prayers at the same time when they send blessings on the Prophet Muhammad.

Criticism of polytheists:

Though Jews and Christians are chastised by the Quran for distorting God’s guidance to them and failing to act in line with His commands, the polytheists in Arabia are seen as people who had not been warned earlier and Prophet Muhammad was sent to guide them: “that thou [Muhammad] mayest warn a people whose fathers were not warned; so they were heedless” (55:6). Thus, criticism towards these polytheists does not arise of any historical deviation from guidance on their part, but their stubbornness in not responding to the Prophet Muhammad’s message of monotheism. They are reprimanded mainly for i) associating partners with God and expecting intercession through them, and ii) being stubbornly ungrateful to God’s bounties.

Pre-Islamic Arab polytheists believed in a pantheon of deities and Allah was considered to be a supreme deity in a polytheistic pantheon. Other deities, particularly the three goddesses Al-‘Uzza, al-Lat and Manah were believed to be able to make intercession to the high God. Quran severely rejects this practice of associating partners with God in the hope of any benefit to be received from these deities: “Then on the Day of Resurrection He will disgrace them and say, “Where are My partners on whose account you were defiant?”” (19:27). Quran intended for polytheists to center the divine within a single God, but monotheism cannot be seen as an innovative idea put forth by the Quran in Arabia since historically there were some hanifs in that region who subscribed to that position already. Quran was, in fact, more radically so stressing on a complete elimination of idols from the religious milieu of Arabia which is evident in its uncompromising tone it adopts towards polytheism.

Moreover Quran, interestingly, equates the absence of monotheism to a lack of gratitude and insight. Quran urges the polytheists to ponder upon the logic of their beliefs by reflecting whether the idols they worship seem capable to them of creating the wonderfully intricate world they observe around them: “And they worship, apart from God, that which has no power over any provision that may come to them from the heavens and the earth; nor are they capable [of such] (16:73).” Quran seems to argue that once people begin to reflect on the ‘signs’ in the universe, that is natural world, and the numerous blessings they are bestowed with, it becomes almost commonsense to have faith in One Omnipotent God. This is why Quran finds it surprising that the polytheists enjoy all the blessings of this world, the assistance provided by the cattle, the variety of foods and drinks they enjoy and “yet they have taken gods other than God, that perhaps they may be helped. They cannot help them,” (36:74-5). Thus, evidently, Quran equates polytheism with ingratitude, and suggests that polytheists’ ascribing partners to God is an act of ungratefulness: “behold, a group among you ascribes partners to God. So let them be ungrateful for that which We have given them: “Enjoy yourselves! For soon you will know””(16:54-5). In the same vein, it is interesting to note that the Arabic word ‘kafir’ generally rendered as ‘infidel’ or ‘disbeliever’ has a root meaning of kufr which signifies ‘lack of gratitude’. Lack of belief, in God’s eyes, is intrinsically intertwined with lack of thankfulness: gratitude for bounties of life should ideally lead one to reflect on the source of those bounties which in turn leads to reverence for and faith in that Source.

Conclusion

After having analyzed the Quranic criticism towards Jews, Christians, and polytheists, it is important to briefly conjecture the possible motivations behind these objections in order to put them into perspective. Criticism advanced towards Jews and Christians can be seen in two broad categories: Doctrinal criticism which can be seen as an end in itself, and polemical criticism which can be viewed as a tool employed as a means to another end.

It is to be noted that objections such as distortion of scripture by the Jews and Christians, and towards Christian belief of Jesus’ sonship and the Trinity can be seen as indispensable points of theological disagreement from the perspective of Quran.  As seen earlier, the Christian doctrines were disapproved by the Quran because of their alleged violation of monotheistic principles. Quran views itself not only as a continuation of the Old and New Testaments but its culmination; it sees its message to be in line with the original Torah (2:89). However, it also asserts that these earlier revelations were not preserved in their original form, and that they were corrupted in transmission. Thus, Quran viewed its message as the word of God through Prophet Muhammad and as a corrective reform to the alleged distortion of Divine message by the past communities. It is in this spirit that Quran seems eager to elaborate on those distortions because these elaborations acted as justifications for the need of the Quran, almost its raison d’être. If Quran had agreed with all the subsequent developments in the Christian and Jewish theologies, including the scriptural redactions as well as doctrinal innovations, it would have failed to furnish adequate reason and urgency for the need of a new Revelation from the God of Jews and Christians.

Moreover, Quran’s emphasis on the alleged defects and limitations, irrespective of whether due to deliberate or circumstantial reasons, in these earlier scriptures helped it develop this contrast whereby it could present itself as the final and infallible revelation by God (5:48, 15:9). The infallibility of Quran is an important idea which has led the Muslims to live as a scripture-centered community. Quran’s casting doubts on the purity of earlier scriptures can be attributed to its viewing scripture having a central importance in a tradition; a loss of scripture means the loss of tradition. This importance of scripture can be seen in the way Quran, instead of opening with “In the beginning there was …”, commences with “This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for the reverent” (Chapter 2 considered as formal beginning). Also, in an interestingly unique way Quran appears to be self-conscious of its status as a scripture: it repeatedly refers to itself as book or scripture throughout the text even when it was revealed piecemeal. Quran’s reference to Jews and Christians as ‘People of the Book’ is another telling notion pointing not only to Quran’s emphasis on the centrality of scripture but also its role as a linkage between Abrahamic traditions.

On the other hand, the second category of criticism pointing to alleged human failings of historical Jewish communities and highlighting their certain qualities and acts such as the sense of complacence, transgression of laws, ungratefulness, and fickleness of the Jews can be seen as polemical rhetoric unrelated to any theological disagreements. Arguably, these are not the points of criticism that could help Quran establish the basis for its need: such flaws and failings may creep into a section of any community that, arguably, do not necessarily have to trigger the need for a new Revelation reminding the basic precepts of God’s message as long as the message itself remained intact normatively. The reason of the inclusion of these accounts can be viewed as didactic: a tool for warning against certain patterns of behavior marked by ingratitude, too much attachment to the world, and transgression for instance. According to the Quran, these failings incurred God’s wrath and hence should serve as “an admonition to the reverent” (2:66): to remind to the followers of Quran to be warned against the consequences of displeasing God by bearing in mind the example of Jews. This is evident in the strong language Quran invokes when narrating these historical accounts. Quran, in its overall character, is to be viewed as predominantly doctrinal and indirectly historical, unlike other Abrahamic scriptures which are the reverse. The historical anecdotes in the Quran are interspersed into various places, not as linear narratives but, as references in order to support the ideas. In view of this framework, Quranic anecdotes chastising historical Jews can also be viewed as having a purpose beyond themselves: moral instruction through inculcating the fear of divine retribution.

Lastly, Quran’s criticism of the Arabian polytheists for ascribing partners with God, linking it with lack of discernment and gratitude, seems expected in the light of the unqualified urgency Quran attaches to its idea of absolute and uncompromising monotheism. Quran’s plain refusal to accommodate or negotiate over any polytheistic practices of Arabia is, again, expected in light of its purported aim, which was to reestablish the monotheistic legacy of Abraham, the prime idol-breaker.

References

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein., Carner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds. The Study Quran: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

Random reflections on Islamic Mysticism and Divine Attributes

Chittick’s exposition of the differences between conventional Islamic theologians and mystics – in terms of conceiving God – is helpful in tracing one strand of theological underpinnings of the rivalry still existent between these two camps, whereby the former continues to criticize practices associated with the latter, and the latter accuses the former of preoccupying themselves with hollow legalities while disregarding the true essence of faith. The divergence appears to be as old as the formative period of Islamic thought: orthodox theologians, while maintaining God’s transcendence, opposed the mystics’ attempt to conceive God in terms of imagery in the Quran which ascribes human qualities to God. The mystics’ response to it was that it is best to conceive and recognize God in God’s disclosure of himself: His qualities which He reveals in the Quran. Mystics’ emphasize on the third level of Islam (three levels being, Islam: submission, Iman: faith, Ihsan: doing what is beautiful), that is Ihsan, which translates into ‘doing what is beautiful’ but is explained by the Prophet to mean living and worshipping as if you see God, and if not that, then God sees you. This symbolism attached with ‘seeing God’ was something unacceptable to the orthodox school which maintained that such mundane attempts to perceive God must be given up. In this backdrop, I found it interesting to note that the motivating force behind both the Islamic mystic and the orthodox beliefs has been tawhid – the oneness and uniqueness of God. One contemporary group staunchly opposed to sufi beliefs calls itself muwahiddun (people of tawhid). Mystics on the other hand, consider union with God, the attainment of highest spiritual state, as a final realization of tawhid, and therefore tawhid is as central to mysticism, which is also evident in Ibn Arabi’s theory of wahdat al-wujud or Bulleh Shah’s verse ‘It’s all in One contained’.  Even though the orthodox camp frames its objection to the popular practices of shrine-visiting in terms of alleged violation of tawhid, this disagreement perhaps deals with finer points related to the permissibility of intercession, and not because (ideally) shrine-based practices violate tawhid.

Another point I found worth highlighting is the mystics’ overwhelming emphasis on the jamal (beauty) –based attributes of God including love, mercy, beauty, generosity , even though God has also revealed his jalal (awe-inspiring)- based qualities, such as power, majesty, absoluteness. This emphasis can be seen in the light of the mystics’ aforementioned belief that God must be recognized in his own disclosure of Himself, in which context, the verse “My mercy takes precedence over my wrath” is given significant attention. Mystics’ ceaseless emphasis on the God’s ‘gentle’ qualities, and the presence of this duality of God’s characteristics reminded me of this interesting discussion by S. H. Nasr whereby he maintained that this duality in the principles of Divine Nature is manifested at the microcosmic level as male and female: such that “God is both Absolute and Infinite. Absoluteness and Majesty, which is inseparable from it, is manifested most directly in the masculine state, and Infinity and Beauty in the feminine state” and human, by virtue of being made in God’s reflection possesses complementarily both qualities, however Infinity is more feminine and Absoluteness is more masculine; root of both femininity and masculinity are to be found in Divine Nature, which transcends the duality between them by virtue of God being neither male nor female. In the same vein, Ibn Arabi highlighting the notion of divinity in the female face went to the extent of saying that “man’s contemplation of God in woman is the most perfect”. This telling comment ties in with Schimmel’s observation about vernacular poetry and spiritualization of medieval folk tales whereby she observed that in Arab culture love for God is represented by the motif of a man’s longing for a beautiful woman. This contrasted with the Indo-Muslim tradition (Heer, sassi, sohni, or even virahini) in which the human soul is represented by a woman who yearns for the Divine Beloved represented by a male. This difference across cultures between the symbolisms of gender to depict divine love is quite remarkable; in any case, the Arabic conception shows that the Islamic understanding of God is not confined to a patriarchal image. As far as sufis’ apparent overwhelming emphasis on divine qualities of gentleness, mercy and bounty overshadowing his severity, wrath and justice is concerned, Samani and Maybudi, while recasting the entire story of creation and Adam’s fall in the language of love, note that even the ‘severe’ qualities of God have to be appreciated in the path of Love: “Love in his heart drove him to embrace the full wealth of the divine attributes, not just the gentleness of proximity and union… Adam knew that he could not become a lover without pain and suffering.” Thus the relationship between God’s gentle and awe-inspiring qualities, and the human’s relationship with both of them in the sufi framework seem more complex than it appears in the first glance.

Sufism ‘versus’ Islam?

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If I’d get a penny for every time I hear someone declare the need for disseminating the ‘sufi’ interpretation of Islam as a way to counteract the trends of radicalism, I’d be a millionaire now. It irks me because this springs from a misinformed perception which not only reeks of foreign, political influences but also of complete unfamiliarity with the tradition.

There are problems with the historical, and in some ways on-going, attempts to use Sufism as a political tool, both by Western and ‘enlightened-moderate’ Pakistani governments in the past. At the offset of the 21st century, American foreign policy is known to have formally viewed, and attempted to use, Sufism as an “exploitable fissure”; an approach I find to be infinitely problematic and, frankly, quite sinister. It reminds me of the phrase by Dhu’l-Nun al-Misri, one of the greatest Sufis, condemning turrahat al-Sufiyya, loosely translated as travesties of the Sufis, by which he meant the ‘appropriation of Sufism by the unworthy’. This whole political project of formulating and propagating a mindset, presumably to counter radicalism, which views Sufism and traditional Islam in mutually exclusive, dichotomous, and antagonistic terms, does a great disservice to both. For many skeptics, there is a narrow window between Islamic orthodoxy to turn into radicalism – this fear springing from a worldview grounded in hatred and ignorance. I feel that pushing Sufism as an ‘antidote’ to Islamic orthodoxy assumes that the former has an independent existence. Many like myself would contend otherwise (as I particularly speak of the so-called ‘sober’ Junayd’s school of spirituality). It seems like marshaling a branch of a religious tradition and using it as a political tool against that very tradition out of which it emerged. Celebrating the cultural appeal of sufi music as an end in itself is one thing, and viewing it as a political tool as a means to another end, wholly another. This project, of West making Sufism its ally, has important social implications. The West’s political adoption of Sufism for its own use, at home and abroad, has been felt by the perceptive (as it was quite conspicuous during the Musharraf regime) and has made the term ‘sufism’ and its certain manifestations suspect in the eyes of traditional people. You may find out that, in Pakistan for example, you cannot have a conversation with the spiritually inclined, some even initiated into various sufi orders, elders of your family without using the term ‘tasawwuf’ in place of ‘sufism’ (reminiscent of George Orwell’s incisive observation that any word that ends with an -ism reeks of propaganda), and without explicitly admitting as a preface that you view sufi spirituality as a central component of as well as vitalizing influence on Islam, and not as its antithesis.

Reading about western foreign policy’s channeling large funds in various directions to ‘transform Islam from within’ for me has been reminiscent of another campaign, not so long ago, with reversed aims, whereby massive funds and arms were channeled during the time of Afghan jihad in which it suited US interests to support and propagate the so-called ‘jihadi’ narrative in Islam. It is not a distant memory when books, published in the US, were disseminated across seminaries in Pakistan, the introductory alphabet alif bay lesson of which taught: alif for Allah, jeem for jihad, kaaf for Kalashnikov. I wonder if the massive and deep-rooted havoc wreaked in my part of the world and beyond, through these warped policies, can be undone by globally applauding to alif Allah chambray di booti and patronizing ‘sufi concerts’. Masses in traditional Muslim societies do not look at Western governments abroad or Westernized governments at home to interpret Islam for them or inform them as to which reading of Islam is superior to others. The reasons for such deep-seated suspicion are understandably historically rooted and cannot necessarily be attributed to a plain unthinking anti-Western sentiment. US foreign policy’s history of indulging different configurations of Islam at different points in history, in politically self-serving ways, does not lend it any credibility in the eyes of those who claim to live Islam on their own terms.  Based on what I have gathered, even sufis don’t like ‘state-sponsored sufism’. Sufi tradition can arguably have a more broad-based appeal when left alone by the state departments. Responding to overwhelmingly political problems with theological ‘exploitations’ or cultural magic bullets seems not only a superficial response but also a misdirected and misinformed one. In what ways can sufi songs possibly act as a counteractive to militancy and radicalism?