PJM in Seattle
February 6, 2007
“From water God made every living thing.”
-Surah Number 21 Ayah Number 30, Koran
A Letter on Islam written in response to a non-Muslim writer: “The problem with Islam is not the Koran, but Muslims and their respective understandings of the Koran that result in their differing conduct.”
by Salim Mansur
You ask me political questions and not questions about faith. You do not ask what Islam means to me as a person and others of my persuasion who embrace its teachings as part of the family of Abraham’s faith traditions, Judaism and Christianity. This is a common conflation. It is from this present perspective, one that makes politics dominate faith that causes Islam to be seen as a “political” religion.
Islam is practiced as a politicized faith by a majority of Muslims. This practice shapes writings about Islam in the media and the resulting disdain or abuse directed towards it. Since Muslims have made Islam into politics (and hence are responsible for perverting Islam as a faith-tradition), non-Muslims cannot be blamed for understanding and assessing Islam politically. Neither can they be blamed for seeing Islam as being predisposed to violence. Muslims, particularly jihadi Muslims (those who consider making war as one of the core tenets of Islam), have made Islam inseparable from their politics while Muslims who disagree remain mostly silent.
The Koran – Muslims believe as a matter of faith that the Koran is God’s Words revealed to Muhammad – is as infinite in its meaning (so does Koran describes itself) as is the infinity of God in all His attributes by which we, fallible humans, in our finitude struggle to comprehend Him.
To quench their thirst a bird and an elephant drink water from the same pool. Their thirsts are quantitatively, perhaps even qualitatively, different and they remain different despite the fact they drink from the same pool.
Muslims drink for their needs from the same spiritual pool of life-giving water, the Koran. Still, any two Muslims – jihadi Muslims on the one hand and myself on the other – might not have anything in common in Islam except for the belief that the Koran is God’s Words and Muhammad was a prophet in the long line of prophets from Abraham to Jesus. The problem with Islam is not the Koran, but Muslims and their respective understandings of the Koran that result in their differing conduct.
There are verses and chapters in the Koran that speak about violence done or the violence that comes about in resisting and defeating evil. There are verses in the Koran that speak of justice, mercy, peace, beauty, charity, love, patience, devotion, prayers, and good conduct that redeems an individual on the Day of Reckoning.
The Koran as God’s Words is analogous to nature containing the beauty of the rose and the violence of tsunami. Neither nature nor God is to be blamed for the most sublime sunset followed soon after by a Katrina-type hurricane. Those who do not understand this can no more be faulted than faulting a deaf man for failing to appreciate Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
The verses speaking about wars and the necessity to defeat unbelievers – these should only be read as instructions and guidance for Muhammad to defeat those who made war with him so that God’s Words would prevail. They are not instructions for al Qaeda leaders and jihadi Muslims. Irrespective of how they read these verses as guidance and justification for their demented politics, the Koran nullifies this over and over again by its universal instruction to follow the path of mercy, justice, forgiveness, repentance, charity and to trust in the eventual reckoning of the merciful God.
Moreover, the Koran’s instruction to resist and defeat infidels begs the question about who are “infidels.” A majority of Muslims, in particular jihadi Muslims, take anyone who opposes them and their view of Islam as infidel. It might be said, on the contrary, infidels are those people who engage in evil that is life-denying, who wage war against freedom and democracy in our time. It might also be said that those who spread terror indiscriminately are infidels and need to be resisted and defeated. In other words infidels are fascists, communists, tyrants of all sorts. Given the politics they espouse and the violence they engage in by despoiling God’s name and those of His prophets this list would include jihadi Muslims.
The Koran instructs individuals to choose the right path. Because human beings, in contrast to angels and all other members of God’s creation, are endowed with free will it instructs them to choose among alternatives. It is in our freedom to choose we become fully human, and freedom means responsibility and accountability for choices made and acts committed. The Koran reminds us over and over again that we are responsible for the consequences of our conduct.
Most Muslims, perhaps a majority, might now be practically deaf to the Koran’s message and its majesty, and can only pick up the very limited sound of what suits their preferred needs as do the jihadi Muslims. Such Muslims, needless to add, will never find poetry in the morning dew or evening stars, will never comprehend the beauty of creation where sun spots have a place in the face of the sun.
I could cite innumerable verses from the Koran that jihadi Muslims – and non-Muslims who view Islam as it is reflected in the conduct of Osama Bin Laden – do not comprehend or will not acknowledge, and so my effort will be as barren as trying to help a deaf man listen to Beethoven’s ninth symphony.
I end this letter citing one verse from the Koran for you. It is taken from Chapter 5 in A.J. Arberry’s translation:
“O believers, be you securers of justice, witnesses for God. Let not detestation for a people move you not to be equitable; be equitable – that is nearer to godfearing. And fear God; surely God is aware of the things you do.”
The Koran is overflowing with such instructions and admonishments. The Koran’s message is not directed for Muslims only – a Muslim in terms of belief and conduct, according to the Koran, is inferior to a Mumin (a believer in God be he a Jew, a Christian, or of any other faith-tradition and this belief is evident in his conduct) – but to anyone and everyone who will read and comprehend its universal message of peace and tranquility that comes with faith in God’s infinite mercy and compassion.
To suggest the Koran preaches violence, as jihadi Muslims do by their conduct, or it’s message is reserved for a particular people, as understood by non-Muslims influenced by jihadi conduct, is a travesty against God of all creation, of Abraham and Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, of prophets known and unknown, and against the Koran.
I am reminded of what the wonderful friend and Rabbi Abraham Heschel would say to his students that if “my God is not your God and is uncaring about others then he is merely an idol.” The God of Islam is not an idol, nor caring only about Muslims. The God of Islam and of Muhammad is the God of Abraham. That many Muslims have forgotten this simple reality the Koran announces is evident in their bigotry and violence directed against others. Their misery is proportionate to their forgetfulness.
But then to the blind the Koran is as closed a book as Beethoven’s ninth symphony is inaudible to the deaf.
The Cool Water of the Koran (Part II)
February 24, 2007
“Though all the trees in the earth were pens, and the sea and the seven seas after it were to replenish them, yet would the Words of God not be spent.” — Koran (31:27)
This is the second Letter on Islam written in response to a non-Muslim writer: ”The Koran is to Muslims what Jesus is to Christians.”
I will address you as a friend even though all I know of you is from your letters. I trust in calling you a friend we will set between us a relationship of some mutual respect.
I find your letters smoking with anger. I understand why you are angry, and there is much to be angry about. But anger clouds reason, impedes the understanding, and makes our response to evil often ineffectual, even counter-productive. Even righteous-anger must be tempered with reason for justice to be done, and for good to triumph over evil.
You need to pause and drain your heart of anger that it might begin to feel and hear the sublime music around you, for it is through the heart that we hear that music that is heavenly and transcendent. And if you want to behold Him, as the psalmist in the Bible pines to “behold the beauty of the Lord,” you must wipe the stain of anger from your eyes.
Our history is of our making. The monuments to our triumphs and ruins are statements about ourselves; testaments to how we have conducted our affairs between our arrival and departure from this world. The best we inherit is the gift of freedom by which we endear ourselves to each other; and the worst we confront is the struggle with freedom’s enemy.
The jihadi Muslims are one such enemy of freedom, and since there can be no peace with them as they preach and practice violence, they must, as were other enemies of freedom, be eliminated. The conflict between freedom and tyranny is but another name for the eternal struggle between good and evil, between belief and unbelief. In this conflict the God of Abraham is not an entirely neutral and distant on-looker. Far from it. He is an active participant in the ranks of those who fight for freedom.
The reason is simple. There can be no belief without freedom, and tyranny is unbelief or belief in false deities whether these are graven images or ideologies at war with freedom.
The Koran declares, “No compulsion is there in religion.” Any public demonstration of religion brought about by coercion is merely another form of idol-worship. Faith is not faith unless it is freely found and not compelled. This is the paradox that confounds those who desire peace and yet deny God. Securing freedom requires the preparedness and willingness to fight those who are enemies of freedom. How else will freedom be won and tyrants defeated?
Tyrants and those who serve tyranny are infidels or unbelievers, and fighting them when they seek to spread their tyranny is a righteous effort sanctioned by the Koran. Whether misguided or innately evil, the jihadi Muslims, by conflating politics and faith to deny others the right to choose for themselves how to live, are tyrants and hence unbelievers.
The Koran, as with the Bible or any sacred text, can be cited by the devil for his purpose. Discernment is needed to distinguish between the devil in disguise and the genuine seeker after truth prepared to fight in defending his freedom. The test between truth and falsehood is to be discerned in the conduct of individuals. As the Bible counsels “by their fruits you shall know them.”
You question, however, the nature of the Koran and you deride the fundamental belief of Muslims that the Koran is truly God’s Words as revealed to Muhammad as God’s messenger. You are not alone in this questioning and derision of Muslim belief following the horrific events of September 11, 2001. I am neither surprised nor angered. The Holocaust brought many Jews to question the very existence of God; that if He exists how could He be seen as good if He allowed such horror to be visited upon them?
The Koran was revealed in time and space. This revelation of God’s Words shaped the destiny of a single human being, Muhammad, and made him an instrument of God’s plan for a portion of mankind. Then the Revelation to Muhammad, after his death, is redacted into a text that became the basis of an empire and civilization in the name of Islam.
The Koran and the history that unfolds after its Revelation have become inextricably bound together. Today it is an immense difficulty to imagine the Koran outside of and apart from this history and to read it afresh. It is the same difficulty as reading the Bible without reference to the history of the respective peoples involved in shaping their lives and the environment around them. And yet that tireless effort is constantly required if the pristine message of the Koran is to be heard. The Koran is to Muslims what Jesus is to Christians. The Koran is divine in its origin, and it exists outside of time and space though it descends into the material world of human beings with the resulting consequence of being variously understood and exalted, or misused and abused.
The common mistake made by non-Muslims, and many Muslims as well, is to draw a comparison between Jesus and Muhammad. Setting aside, and not disputing, Christian belief about Jesus being divine (for this is a matter of belief as is Muslim belief about the Koran being God’s Words), Muslim belief in Jesus – of his special status by the nature of his birth and by the powers he possessed as divine favour – is informed by the Koran. Muhammad, unlike Jesus, is a mortal as the Koran insists, and like any other mortal will be accountable for his deeds on the Day of Reckoning.
Jesus is not bound by history, and his presence to Christians is immediate and redemptive. Similarly, the Koran is not bound nor limited by history, and God’s Words reach us in the here and now if we are receptive to them.
It is odd for anyone to insist that the Koran must be read and understood within the framework of reading provided by those who came after Muhammad in the early centuries of Muslim history. This insistence freezes the meaning of the Koran for the living generation of Muslims and those as yet unborn. It imprisons the Koran within the reading made by the dead generations of Muslims; it denies the very possibility of reform.
Such insistence runs counter to what is asserted in the Koran, that its meaning is inexhaustible; that the past is but a lesson and not a foreclosure on the future. The Koran was not revealed for the raising of an empire as occurred in the years following the demise of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, nor was its meaning emptied when that empire withered and fell.
What is the central message of the Koran? It is to re-awaken man (speaking generically, not exclusively in gender terms) to recognize the One Reality, God – Eternal, Incomparable, Self-Sustaining – as the Source of all of creation. This recognition and its acknowledgement is the primary covenant between God and man. From this constant covenant comes man’s responsibility to take his freedom signified by the spirit God breathed into him as life neither lightly nor in vain. Those among us who trample upon and seek to abridge this freedom are the ones at war with God’s spirit. They are the ones who need to be fought and defeated.
This core message of the Koran is neither exclusive for Arabs among whom Muhammad was born, nor has it been denied to others at different times and different places. This message is like the eternal life-giving water, and as water – it being the universal metaphor for life and living – it takes the shape of vessels into which it is poured.
The jihadi Muslims are people belonging to the fraternity of bigots who quarrel over the shape of the vessels carrying water. Believers quench their thirst with water heedless of the vessel from which it gets poured.
If the irony does not escape you then you will recognize how in abusing the living faith of a people, in those who take the Koran as God’s Words, you have placed yourself in the company of jihadi Muslims whom you detest. In that company you continue the quarrel with over the shape of vessels while the water within eludes you and your thirst is not quenched. If you would instead choose to drink water freely from any vessel that is pleasing to you, without denying others the same right, I would remain committed to protecting our shared freedom. And I would protect it as best I could as both your friend and a believer in God’s Words revealed as the Koran.
The Cool Water of the Koran (Part III)
March 3, 2007
“The war within Islam is as old as the history of Islam itself, a war brought about by those wielding the sword for worldly power by appropriating Islam to serve their ends and to subjugate Muslims and non-Muslims alike to their whims.”
“Verily God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves.” Koran (13:11)
I hear you, but I am not quite sure if you hear me. You are hypnotized with the sound and fury of our era. The cacophony of the here and now drowns anyone seeking to speak, write and contemplate on what is eternal.
There are presently more than a billion Muslims in the world. There are twice as many people who are Christians. There are probably over 900 million Hindus, over 370 million Buddhists, and the Jews number around 15 million. These numbers can be read in many different ways. But surely it cannot be said that people belonging to different faith-traditions share a monolithic view of their faith. There exists greater variety of thinking and practice within each faith than is often acknowledged. Africans belonging to the Anglican Church, for instance, increasingly view American Episcopalians with suspicion if not derision.
You mention, derisively, that I belong to a miniscule and inconsequential minority among Muslims. You assume this on the basis of what I have shared with you. You also dismiss the notion of “moderate” Muslims, and insist without much reflection that Muslims are incapable of reform since their belief is false. In other words, you indicate the prerequisite of reform for Muslims is repudiating Islam.
In this letter I will confine myself to the issue of reform and your dismissal of “moderate” Muslims. You assume that I am part of a miniscule minority. All I can say to you is that I am not alone among Muslims who believe that in worshipping God – the One, Alone and Incomparable in His Majesty and Compassion – lies true freedom; the freedom of becoming and of being free from all false belief and ideology. It is this freedom, derived as God’s blessings, that provides not only peace and tranquility, but the detachment to be in the world without being ensnared by its charms or repelled by its faults.
The Koran teaches that reform is an inward journey of change, transformation and transcendence in an individual. The outward reality for an individual is the community with which he is attached by circumstances or by choice. Rarely (perhaps never) is the inner reality of an individual in harmony with the outer circumstances of his life. Jesus was enmeshed in the politics of his time, as were Moses and Muhammad. Politics is without exception messy. It is the space where many competing interests collide.
Religion in the form given to it by humans is a human construction. We shape the vessel that holds our water. Form without faith is an empty vessel, and faith as life-giving water needs a vessel in which to be contained.
Reform is the capacity of individuals to receive and hold the water of faith, and grow. An incapacity for receiving, retaining and increasing the volume of water makes the shell hard, eventually barren. The absence of faith makes individuals into cynics.
A turning towards God is the first step in reform, and moving towards Him is the process of reform. Only a bigot will insist the first step and the process can only occur within the exclusive framework of a single religion; that God denies those who seek Him except if they come in an “approved” form.
In faith all men stand alone when contemplating, seeking and worshipping God. The quality of man’s faith is found not in his catechism but his conduct. The Koran declares that those who are dearest to God are those with the best conduct. In return God provides “for serenity in the hearts of believers so that their faith may increase with belief.”
In the realm of politics human beings confront each other individually and in groups with respect or with anger, or with all the other emotions in between that define us. Our politics is of our making — even when we fight over the meaning of God. When we quarrel over religion and maim and kill each other as a result, we are merely quarreling over the shape of the vessel.
God is not neutral in the struggle between belief and unbelief, or between freedom and tyranny. God has clearly indicated, for those with ears to hear, whose side He favours in this struggle. God has sent prophets and nurtured saints to guide us through our confusion and remind us of our responsibility. At times these prophets have succeeded in taming the passions and the evil in the hearts of men. At other times they have failed or fallen victim to the hands of unbelievers. Moses never entered the Promised Land. Jesus was crucified. Muhammad’s family massacred. Such is the nature of the struggle, and evil has often prevailed until good has paid in sacrifice to triumph over evil.
History records our successes and our failures. Civilizations have risen and then fallen. Mighty earthly powers have defied or denied God, repressed people of belief, scorned the idea of freedom and built temples to tyranny. For a little while these powers have appeared indestructible, but as we take a walk through history we see their empty, barren ruins. The water still flows.
You ask where are the “moderate” Muslims and why they have not done “enough” to defeat those jihadi Muslims dedicated to violence and bigotry? Since they have not done enough – however you measure what is enough – you conclude there cannot be “moderate” Muslims.
I confess that at times I too feel that Muslims have not taken sufficient responsibility for themselves to defeat the jihadi Muslims who have defiled Islam. The nature of any such engagement is, however, in the realm of politics, and all you need to do is pause and consider what is really taking place in the greater Middle East and beyond where Muslims constitute a majority population within a country.
Since September 11, 2001 the general population in the West, in America in particular, has awakened to varying degrees to the war raging within Islam that has spilled over beyond the borders of the Arab-Muslim world. The war within Islam is as old as the history of Islam itself, a war brought about by those wielding the sword for worldly power by appropriating Islam to serve their ends and to subjugate Muslims and non-Muslims alike to their whims. In recent history this war has been fought between countries with Muslim majority population. It has been fought within these countries across sectarian or ethnic divisions as is now being fought in Iraq.
The war within Islam is not unique. Christian Europe was involved in similar warfare spread across centuries, as recently as the two world wars that left Europe in ruins. The wars among Christians spread and endangered the wider world and which then became involved, took sides, and eventually prevailed over those forces most bigoted and hostile to the general peace of the world.
As with these wars, the wider world must now agree that to achieve peace and freedom the most bigoted elements within the Muslim world – the jihadi Muslims and their allies – need to be irrevocably defeated.
Unless the wider world unites against jihadi Muslims to crush them, they will continue to seek to take advantage of the cracks and divisions among non-Muslims to consolidate their own power. They will wage their war in as many ways they can, openly and by deceit, and ruthlessly repress any dissent among Muslims and non-Muslims wherever they prevail. This the world must realize.
In the midst of the current turmoil, as in past wars, “moderate” Muslims seek space for their faith and surcease from the demands of politics. Muslims, as the Koran instructs, are required to be a temperate people, a people of the middle eschewing extremes, a people who seek and work for what is just. It is in moderation an individual and a community can create harmony between the realms of faith and of politics.
People of moderation are not responsible for making wars. When wars begin such people seek distance, and when this is denied they have often taken side of lesser evil and paid the price.
“Moderate” Muslims within the Muslim world remain discreet given the nature of power-holders in their society. But they constitute the vital element of the population, by inclination and by numbers, if segments of the Muslim world and in particular areas within the greater Middle East are to make the transition from tyranny to democracy.
If “moderate” Muslims are not to be found, or do not exist, there can be then no expectation of such a transition. The West logically will be required then to re-colonize the Muslim world as the measure needed for preventing wars within Islam that endanger peace and security elsewhere. Because of this fact, those who revile Islam and scorn “moderate” Muslims need to answer how they intend to wage an endless war of occupation within the Muslim world.
By the same token, the “moderate” Muslims who make their home in the open, free and democratic societies of the West, in particular the United States, bear great responsibility in defending the freedom they enjoy. They need to be more forthcoming in the effort needed to defeat jihadi Muslims.
But the obverse of insufficient effort of “moderate” Muslims in the West against jihadi Muslims is the extent of confusion and denial present among non-Muslims.
The degree to which the West is internally divided about the perils of jihadi Muslims and their allies, and confused about the nature of the war that the West (or more narrowly the United States) finds itself locked into since September 11, 2001, inevitably influences the role of “moderate” Muslims. Greater unity and decisiveness in the West in this war will bring “moderate” Muslims to do the right thing, as Islam itself demands of them, by aiding the forces of freedom and moderation against the extremism of jihadi Muslims.
Through the long decades of the Cold War “moderate” Muslims were on the side of freedom and opposed to Communism. It is too readily forgotten that during this time the West embraced tyrannical regimes of the Muslim world in the war against Soviet communism. The price of this anti-communist Cold War alliance was paid by “moderate” Muslims.
How the Muslim world will engage in reform and advance the process of transition from varying degrees of authoritarian rule to democracy remains an open question. The process of such change across the Muslim world will not be uniform. But the process itself will be still-born if “moderate” Muslims are non-existent or Islam is, according to those non-Muslims spewing their own bigotry, false, unchanging and monolithic in form and expression.
“Moderate” Muslims are the key for the eventual success of democratic reforms of Muslim societies and for world peace. They are also the key allies for the West in defeating jihadi Muslims. The success in making and sustaining this alliance will be the measure of statesmanship for political leaders in the West.
Those in the West for reasons of their own indulge in bigotry by reviling Islam are the inverted image of jihadi Muslims, and equally reprehensible as enemies of freedom.
The Cool Water of the Koran (Part IV)
March 18, 2007
Koran is particular but not unique. There are other Revelations, but the universal is contained in the Koran as in the flame of the candle is to be found the secret of the sun.
“To God [Allah] belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing.” Koran (2:115)
I take your words that you “will bear with me” despite “our differences” and your “reservations and criticisms of Islam and Muslims” kindly. I read this as willingness on your part to continue our exchange, and this is all that you and I need ask for and no more. I am very much a part of our world, as you are. We are both engaged with it, aware of its history abounding with paradoxes, surprises, despair, rancour, and yet sustained with love.
Our differences are important for through them in our finiteness we are engaged with the infinity of which you and I are fragments. I would not want to see you forsake the vessel from which you draw your life-giving sustenance, nor do I insist that you drink from my vessel. But I do believe what we drink as life-giving from our respective vessels — each shaped and painted to our individual preferences — is the same. I often remind my students that while our fingerprints are unique our organs inside of us can be readily transplanted.
Revelation is the communication in time of the sublimely transcendent with the triflingly bounded, of the eternal with the ephemeral. Revelation is the speech of the Infinite Mind (God) compressed into the grammar of the limited mind (man). Words emanating from beyond time are meant for the bounded intellect of human beings so that they may have a sense of the Unbounded Intellect whose emanations they are. Revelations do not cease, only the form in which they occur changes in history relative to the evolution of the human mind to grasp the Infinite within the flux of time.
Muslims take the Koran as revelation, as God’s Words addressed to one individual (Muhammad) at a particular time among a particular people within specific circumstances of that people’s history. But God’s Words have resonance beyond the particular coordinates of time and space for anyone hearing those Words and discovering in them the eternal unblemished by the limitations of the transient.
I am reminded of the opening verse from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” that reads:
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.
Walt Whitman, America’s truly most generous and wide-hearted poet, expressed himself similarly in his huge uncontainable and incomparable poetry – “Come, said my Soul,/Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,)” – found in Leaves of Grass. Whitman declaimed,
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
Poets have always understood, as have scientists, that the particular is the window opening to the universal. Koran is particular but not unique. There are other Revelations, but the universal is contained in the Koran as in the flame of the candle is to be found the secret of the sun.
The uniqueness of the Koran is in the nature of a particular people’s language – its grammar and idiom – by which the presence of the Infinite is disclosed. Language veils the Infinite as the shell of an oyster hides the pearl. Once we are prepared to overcome the difficulty of language – Arabic for the Koran, Sanskrit for the Vedas, Hebrew for the Torah, Greek for the New Testament, etc. – we are in the presence of the Infinite, only limited by our capacity to comprehend this presence which surrounds, penetrates and sustains us as fragments of the totality of creation.
Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, is often quoted for the saying referred to God: “I was a hidden treasure. I longed to be known, so I created all of creation.” In the Koran God reveals Himself to man in words, similes, metaphors and by reference to the marvel of His creation. In knowing God man finds his orientation and destiny – serenity of mind and tranquility of heart – despite “a sea of troubles” as the magnetic needle in compass remains steadily fixed to true North despite the rough motion of ships.
God discloses Himself in the Koran by His attributes. He is the Merciful and the Beneficent. He is the Just, the Generous, and the Magnificent. He is the Truth, the Creator and the Loving One. He is the Friend and the Protector, the Giver and the Taker of life. He is the Manifest and the Hidden, the Everlasting and the Patient, the All-Powerful and the Source of all power. He is the Lord of the Universe and the Master of the Day of Reckoning.
The Koran reads, “Say: ‘Call upon God, or call upon the Merciful; whichever you call upon, to Him belong the Names Most Beautiful.” Then there is the verse of the Koran (in A.J. Arberry’s rendition into English) often recited in recalling the Majesty of God which reads:
there is no god but He,
the Living, the Everlasting.
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep;
to Him belongs
all that is in the heavens and the earth.
Who is there that shall intercede with Him
save by His leave?
He knows what lies before them
and what is after them,
and they comprehend not anything of His knowledge
save such as He wills.
His Throne comprises the heavens and earth;
the preserving of them oppresses Him not;
He is the All-high, the All-glorious.
My favourite, and of many others, are the following verses of the Koran (also in Arberry’s rendition) in which God speaks of Himself.
God is the Light of the heavens and the earth;
the likeness of His Light is as a niche
wherein is a lamp
(the lamp in a glass,
the glass as it were a glittering star)
kindled from a Blessed Tree,
an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West
whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it;
Light upon Light;
(God guides to His Light whom He will.)
(And God strikes similitudes for men,
And God has knowledge of everything.)
in temples God has allowed to be raised up,
and His Name to be commemorated therein;
therein glorifying Him, in the mornings and the evenings,
are men whom neither commerce nor trafficking
diverts from the remembrance of God
and to perform the prayer, and to pay the alms,
fearing a day when hearts and eyes shall be turned about,
that God may recompense them for their fairest works
and give them increase of His bounty;
and God provides whomsoever He will, without reckoning.
God creates and fashions things out of nothing for “when He decrees a thing, He but says to it ‘Be,’ and it is.” He is Incomparable and Alone. And “had there been gods apart from God, both (the heavens and the earth) would have been despoiled.” But God’s creation is faultless, perfect and beautiful.
Thou seest not in the creation
of the All-merciful any imperfection.
Return thy gaze; seest thou any fissure?
Then return thy gaze again, and again, and thy gaze comes
back to thee dazzled, aweary.
And yet God in His awesome majesty is not at any distance from man. The Koran informs, “We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.” Muhammad is quoted saying about God, “I cannot fit into my heavens or into my earth but I fit into the heart of my believing servant.” Or another of his sayings also referring to God is: “The heart of the believer is the place of the revelation of God. The heart of the believer is the throne of God. The heart of the believer is the mirror of God.”
The Koran as Revelation then is the bridge which connects man to God, or the ladder lowered from above for man to make his ascent towards God which is also his destiny. It is the knowledge revealed of the bliss which is with God and in God. It makes “the desire of the moth for the star” (in Shelley’s poetry) a wish to be consummated.
“Light upon light” is the simile for eternal joy and echoes similar descriptions of heavenly bliss found in the Bible and the sacred texts from ancient India. In Isaiah we read,
The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory.
Similarly, in the Upanishad (from India) we find the following description of the Infinite as Brahman:
And then he saw that Brahman was Joy; for from Joy all beings have come, by Joy they all live, and unto Joy they all return.
I will end until next time quoting you Walt Whitman’s “A Persian Lesson.” It reads:
For his o’erarching and last lesson the graybeard sufi,
In the fresh scent of the morning in the open air,
On the slope of a teeming Persian rose-garden,
Under an ancient chestnut-tree wide spreading its branches
Spoke to the young priests and students.
“Finally my children, to envelop each word, each part of the rest,
Allah is all, all, all – is immanent in every life and object,
May-be at many and many-a-more removes – yet Allah, Allah, Allah is there.
“Has the estray wander’d far? Is the reason-why strangely hidden?
Would you sound below the restless ocean of the entire world?
Would you know the dissatisfaction? the urge and spur of every life;
The something never still’d – never entirely gone?
the invisible need of every seed?
“It is the central urge in every atom,
(Often unconscious, often evil, downfallen,)
To return to its divine source and origin, however distant,
Latent the same in subject and in object, without one exception.”
Peace, and may God’s blessings be with you.
The Cool Water of the Koran (Part V)
April 22, 2007
“Say: ‘I take refuge with the Lord of men, the King of men, the God of men, from the evil of the slinking whisperer who whispers in the breasts of men of jinn and men.’” — Koran 114: 1-6
An acquaintance recently asked why Muslims, or for that matter people belonging to other faith-traditions, spend such enormous time speaking and writing about matters of faith when the “faithful” continue to do violence against their fellow humans. In some manner this gentleman was re-stating what you have written to me.
On this question individuals have written volumes. Among Muslims I am reminded most of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the famous Arab historian-philosopher from North Africa born in Tunis. Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (“The Introduction”) was in part an effort to understand and explain the violence of Arabs, particularly of the Bedouins or nomads of the desert. His contemplation was the forerunner of what we today take as sociology.
Ibn Khaldun introduced the notion of culture and civilization in writing about human affairs. As a Muslim by birth he took the fundamentals of his faith as given, and wrote at a time when Muslim power across North Africa and into the heartland of Asia was as dominant as when Rome ruled an empire. Ibn Khaldun was perplexed by the nature of violence within the Muslim realm as his family was a victim of the same in Spain from where they departed for refuge in Tunis.
For Ibn Khaldun sedentary dwelling — made possible in cities where an individual found refinement in living, where arts and philosophy flourished and business prospered — accounted for civilization. But he saw an abiding tension between people who built cities and those who raided them. From this tension he conceived an explanation for the cycle of the rise and fall of civilizations and their ruling dynasties.
Ibn Khaldun viewed Islam as a civilizing force for the Arabs, especially for the Arabs of the desert – the Bedouins. Of the Bedouins, Ibn Khaldun wrote, they are “a savage nation, fully accustomed to savagery and the things that cause it… Such a natural disposition is the negation and antithesis of civilization.” Ibn Khaldun would have well understood at once the savage “natural disposition” of Osama bin Laden and the men of al Qaeda and similar organizations that run amuck in the Arab-Muslim world threatening civilization beyond the desert boundaries (real or allegorical) of the world in which they are born.
Another North African, living a thousand years before Ibn Khaldun, also wrote on the violence of men and the ruin of civilized order. St. Augustine (354-430) was born in Thagaste, presently recognized as Souk Ahras in modern Algeria, a town in close proximity to Tunis. Unlike Ibn Khaldun, St. Augustine was born into a pagan household, acquired Manichaean belief, and then in his middle years converted to Christianity.
In his Confessions St. Augustine narrated his spiritual journey in captivating prose of great majesty. I traveled a summer ago to the home town of St. Augustine to pay homage to this great soul from North Africa, and later spent an afternoon meditating at his Cathedral over-looking the city of Annaba built on the Mediterranean at the eastern end of Algeria.
St. Augustine believed human violence resulted from a lack of goodness in the hearts of men or, more pointedly, from the absence of God in their lives. Man, he wrote, “is a great abyss,” and “the moods and attractions of his heart far outnumber the hairs of his head.” The violence men do to others or to themselves is due to insufficient goodness in their hearts. Evil, St. Augustine explained, “does not exist of itself.”
St. Augustine spoke of “true holiness” or goodness as an “interior disposition;” as an inward awakening of the heart to a reality where God resides in the heart of man. A man awakened to this inward reality will be filled with goodness and incapable of doing harm. There would be no evil in him.
The common thread that runs through the writings of St. Augustine and Ibn Khaldun concerns the condition of man, of men insufficient in goodness and of men naturally disposed to savagery. St. Augustine, as a theologian, contemplated on the nature and presence of God and in the manner He revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Ibn Khaldun. trained as a Muslim jurist, contemplated on the nature of the good society based on laws derived from religion revealed in the Koran by a merciful God. They would have made good companions as contemporaries respectfully engaging with each other in the temperate climate of North Africa along the shores of the Mediterranean.
I think of St. Augustine and Ibn Khaldun when I contemplate on the state of our present world, or when I turn to the Koran to read God’s words as they were addressed at a particular time in a particular place to a particular individual, Muhammad. Both North Africans were men of faith. They placed God at the centre of their lives and from this reality drew conclusions for individuals and society in terms of goodness and its insufficiency that breeds evil.
But understanding God in the manner of theologians, philosophers and jurists remains a cold cerebral exercise in explaining a reality that, in its infinity, is elusive. A mystic seeks immersion in the reality of God, yet once he is soaked in that reality he can scarcely communicate his experience to non-mystics. This is the paradox of the human mind striving to comprehend and convey what is unlimited. It is like a flea taking in the size of an elephant.
This is why the Koran, at least for Muslims, is the closest example available of God’s disclosure of Himself to every man and woman in His own words. The purpose of Revelation in the first instance is to make human beings aware of God as the Source of all things, and how they might eventually and of necessity find refuge in His mercy. Everything ultimately is dissolved in God’s goodness as St. Augustine would remind us, and it is this simple eternal truth of which the Koran speaks equally to an illiterate peasant in the field and a university professor engaged in theorizing on the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. The Persian poet Rumi spoke of this dissolution in his inimitable style as follows:
As salt resolved in the ocean
I was swallowed in God’s sea,
Past faith, past unbelieving,
Past doubt, past certainty.
Suddenly in my bosom
A star shone clear and bright;
All the suns of heaven
Vanished in that star’s light.
My late teacher and friend, Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), described the Koran (certainly for Muslims) as “the eternal breaking through into time; the unknowable disclosed; the transcendent entering history and remaining here, available to mortals to handle and to appropriate; the divine become apparent.” The Koran, in this particular sense, is God’s mercy for human beings who, unaided by its words, can scarcely imagine truthfully His presence unless He discloses Himself.
It is merely adolescent for men and women to quarrel over God and insist their perspectives are the only truthful ones and others are in error or false. Anyone who experiences the reality of God, even when such experience cannot be articulated, knows that others with similar experiences have been graced with divine mercy.
Those who experience God have their hearts filled with His goodness and in them there is no evil. Of those who merely speak about God, we should remain always wary. They dress in the garments of religion to mask their politics. And then there are those whose hearts remain closed to God irrespective of how many times they strike their heads on the ground in acts of prayer. Their words and deeds, insufficient in goodness, are evil.
Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario, London, Canada, and a syndicated columnist for the Sun Media in Canada. A Muslim native born in Calcutta, India, Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.