A Struggle for Peace: Islam's Quest

October 12, 2014

A Talk by Basma El-Bathy

Given at Birmingham Unitarian Church

October 12, 2014

 

 

In the second chapter of the Qur’an, the holy book whosewords Muslims believe is the literal word of god, God announces to His angelsthat he will create a representative, a khalifa,on earth (2:30).

 

Distressingly, clearly perceptive angels ask:

 

“Will You place upon it one who causes corruption thereinand sheds blood, while we sing Your praise and sanctify You?"

 

A concern to which God opaquely responds: "Indeed, Iknow that which you do not know."

 

The story follows with God’s creationof Adam, teaching him the names of all creatures, then having him inform theangels of their own names, and the ensuing climax around Iblis or Satan’shubristic refusal to bow to what he deemed an inferior being created out ofclay and afterward sneaking up on Adam and Eve in the Garden and enticing themto eat from the forbidden fruit, that resulted in their dismissal from heavenand arrival on Earth in what was dictated to become an ongoing struggle betweenthe misleading influences of Iblis, who defiantly expressed to God his plans tocorrupt humankind, and on the other hand, God’s opportunity to humankind to proveotherwise, especially given that in the Islamic narrative, the couple have beenforgiven by God after repenting and beseeching for forgiveness beforedescending to Earth.

 

The emphasis of this story is often placed on the destructiveramification of hubris and arrogance and the forgiving nature of God.

 

However, another significant angle of this story is foundin its brief beginnings, regardless of whether this story is read literally ormetaphorically.

 

God decided to create us – a decision the angels adviseagainst given humanity’s mercurial nature- and yet God assures them, rather mysteriously,by saying that He knows what they do not know.

 

This implies then that there is something particularlymeaningful about this act of creation that makes it outweigh even thecorruption and bloodshed that humankind may commit; something particularly worthyabout this very human being. What might this be?

 

As any textdemanding comprehension and will be interpreted, verses in the Qur’an providecontext to one another and traditionally, Muslims havebeen careful to not simply look at a verse in isolation.

 

Just before Iblis appears on the scene, we are invited tomeditate on the only insight provided to the response about what is it that Godknows that His angels don’t.

 

“He said, "O Adam, inform them of their names."And when he had informed them of their names, God said, "Did I not tellyou that I know the unseen [aspects] of the heavens and the earth? And I knowthat which you reveal and which you conceal."” {2:33}

 

Adam’s accomplishment in the divine logic is profound asis significant: he was able to learn, and then to apply.

 

But before proceeding further we must take into accountthe only other verse in which the term khalifa, or representative, appears inthe Qur’an for further illumination:

 

“Oh David!Indeed, we made you as a khalifa on the earth; so judge between human beingsjustly and do not follow desires.” {38:26}

 

These two verses together bring us to the concepts of ‘ilm or knowledge and its power that isintertwined in the Islamic worldview, with human agency; an agency of acreature who is created as nothing less than the representative of God onEarth.

 

The language and outlook here elevate human beings to anoble position, empowering them with a serious responsibility that they areseen to have the capacity to prevail in its seemingly insurmountable challenge.

 

But the journey is not easy and is not to be takenlightly.

 

It is undergirded by a number of conceptual pillars andchallenges.

 

These can be thought of as conceptual and spiritualstepping stones. I will quickly mention them and then discuss each a littlemore in order.

 

  • Iman– faith

  • Ihsan-Excellence of faith

  • Tawid-the doctrine of God’s oneness

  • Jihad-the struggle

  • Silm/Islam, or a state of surrendering to God

 

Before wetalk a little about each of them, I want to quickly point out an important characteristicof the Arabic language that is fundamental to textual hermeneutics.Arabic, asa Semitic language, relies on a 3-consontanal root that carries what we canthink of as the seed of meaning and this root then provides the building blocksfor the creation of all related words.

 

Let us take a look at our first concept:

 

Iman is a higher level of faith- faith in God, but also entails faith in his angels,books, prophets and day of the judgment.

 

It is derived from a root ‘-m-n (م ن  ء) which meanssafety. In other words, faith for a Muslim is one that is underpinned by theconfidence in God; a confidence that shelters and secures.

 

The root also is the one from which the word ‘amana; sacredtrust or covenant is also formed.  

 

This level of faith, ideally supple and known withoutdoubt by the heart, is one that is substantiated by deed.

 

Therefore, to know God and to accept this covenant is toact upon this knowledge; which isihsan,the highest faith level that implies excellence.

 

It is very important to note the intertwining of faithand deed here at the higher level of the spiritual experience.

 

As such, Islam envisions a just society organized around ethicalchoices of active and engaged divine representatives- who learn (in otherwords, who are endowed with mental faculties, and thus the ability to reasonand to judge) and then who apply; propelling fruitfully this dynamic existentialjourney forward.

 

God emphasizes this directly by stating in chapter 2:

 

 “It is not piety/ righteousnessthat you turn your faces to the East or to the West: Piety is to have faith inGod and the Last Day, and in the angels, the Scripture, and the prophets; togive one’s wealth for love of God to the near of kin and orphans, to the needy,the traveler, the beggar, and to set slaves free; to perform the ritual prayerand pay the poor–tax; those who keep their treaty when they make one, and whoendure patiently sorrows, adversity, and times of peril, such are true infaith, such are the God fearing.” {2:177}

 

In this light, devotion to God is not isolated to private matters of worship or belief, but is also expressed in thelarger social order given our communal interconnectedness.

 

And so we are notcreated all similar simply to reinforce one another, but God’s creation ischaracterized by diversity, as he says:

  

  • “O mankind! We have created youfrom male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know oneanother. The noblest of you, in the sight of God, is the most righteous of you.Indeed, God is the Most Knowing, Most Aware.”{49:13}

  • To each of you We prescribed alaw and a method. Had God willed, He would have made you one nation [united inreligion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race oneanother in good works. To God you will all return, and He will [then] informyou concerning that over which you used to differ. {5:48}

 

The argument then that Islam teaches the need to convertall to Islam is simply false as the norm of creation, in God’s words, isdiversity.

 

This pluralism then is seen as a positive force in thelife of an interdependent humanity whose progress is, in part, catalyzed by afriendly competition between the different groups.

 

The prioritization of plurality and inclusiveness thenavert the stagnation that is likely in uniformity.

 

There is dynamism to this worldview and maybe it iscaptured by the religion’s central doctrine, tawhid.

 

Tawhid is the doctrine of the absolute oneness of an indivisible,omnipotent, omniscient and entirely unique and transcendent God.

 

The worditself doesn’t simply mean the passive conviction in a one god, but is based ona transitive verb that speaks to the person’s active engagement in the processof making God one in his/ her life.

 

This is rooted in a struggle to overcome the stiflingforces, ignorance, exploitation and oppression that compromise the dignity andpurity of humankind.

 

This effort is captured by the concept of jihad.

 

Needless to say, that this concept that have acquired anespecially negative connotation today primarily due to its misrepresentationand sensationalization.

 

We can simply state that jihad neither means a holy warin Islam even in its defensive armed manifestation that can legitimately onlybe called upon by a head of a nation, nor can the law from which this principleis formulated be judged by the behavior of those who break it.

 

Jihad simply mean a struggle and it is primarily aspiritual struggle in the Islamic approach that interweaves faith with moraldeeds; something that is presented in the Qur’an as a difficult challenge forthe human being and thus demands effort, sincerity, confidence in god and theself, and perseverance.

 

The process of livingtawhid thus brings the believer to the ultimate destination envisioned anddesired by God and that is the surrendering to God.

 

This root here is s-l-m (س ل م ) meaning peace, from which the word Islam is derived; surrendering to God.

 

The surrender here is not an act of defeat, but the kindof letting go that expresses deep trust and confidence. It is the kind ofletting go that we can maybe think of analogously for the sake of comparison,to the act of letting go of defenses and pride that a true lover, who is securein a genuine relationship, is able to experience and in doing so, findswholeness and a sense of peace.

 

It is the surrender that the mystics of Islam, the Sufis,have understood as fana’ un-nafs, orthe ceasing-to-be of the self; an enlightened position that one arrives atafter the unraveling and transcending of the destabilizing human ego; arrivingthen at the place of really knowing and loving God who more justifiably then takesthe central position on the existential theater.

 

The peace here is a result of a journey of struggle thatclimaxed in an enlightened liberation as it aligns the soul, society andexistence harmoniously.

 

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