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THE SECOND CHAPTER: AL-BAQARA
Taqwa, God Consciousness And Alleviating Doubt
This is the Book, a guidance to the God conscious.
Taqwa, or what Sardar terms "God consciousness", to begin with, is central to the concept of Islam, and to the second chapter of the Qur'an. It is the moment of insight, the lived experience of knowing something beyond ourselves. However, such insight does not come immediately, all of a sudden.
As we read the Qur'an we have to explore, analyse and interrogate. Doubt and certainty, as such, are not diametrically opposed. Unless we reason with and through our doubts, we can have no confidence in our certainty. Certainty that is never questioned, that is not tested by doubt, can become prejudice, complacency, the blind following of tradition that undermines the spirit and meaning of the very guidance that should be applied to our daily circumstances in the conditions of the times in which we live.
Paradise – Juxtaposing a Fall from Grace with a Message of Hope
Oh Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden; and eat of the bountiful things therein as you will; but do not approach this one tree, lest you become wrongdoers.
The parable of Adam and his wife is a conceptual account of our origin. Here we learn not only of the creation of humanity, but how we can deny and debase our humanity. Their fate, the fall from grace, is an ever-present possibility for all who stray from the straight path of God's guidance, and will not repent and reform.
This new order takes a distinctive place within God's creation. God introduces humanity as khalifa. This is a central concept of Islam, and can be translated as “trustee". We must all then answer for our own actions – for our relationships with our fellow human beings; we must answer for how we care for and utilize the resources of the world. We are responsible for handing on the trust of this world in as good a state as possible for the use and benefit of those who come after us.
To be human, moreover, is to have abilities: this is symbolized in God teaching Adam the “names of all things". The word for names (ism) is understood to mean the ability to define and distinguish between things, the essence of reasoning and conceptual thought. We are created with the capacity to be knowledgeable beings with the ability to learn; learning and knowledge are by their very nature cumulative. To know the names is the basis of language. As the Qur'an makes clear (30:22, 49:13), the diversity of human languages, cultures and races and nations is part of the intention of creation. Therefore, whatever the language or cultures of our birth, the challenge is to employ these endowments, to use our abilities to make the best of life on earth. But those who live creatively and constructively according to god's guidance need have no such fear. As such we can learn from those who came prophetically before.
A Middle Community
We have appointed you a community of the middle way, so that you might bear witness to humankind, and that the Messenger might be a witness to you.
The true definition of Muslim society, for Sardar, is a qualitative one: it must be "the middle community", a community of the middle way. For him it infers and recalls the idea of "the straight path". Thus ummatwasat, the community of the middle way, signifies – in principle though seldom today in practice – a just, equitable, balanced, moderate people, who shun extremism of all kinds.
Muslims have generally seen the notion of the “middle community" in geographical terms, but for Sardar such is incidental. The notion of the "middle community", for him then, is primarily a tool of self-reflection. It implies that a balance must be sought between our physical and spiritual needs, the demands of the body and those of the soul. A distributive, inclusive outlook in all aspects of life is involved, in an environment of open, tolerant welcoming to all. It argues for a more respectful and humble approach to nature, holding ourselves responsible and accountable as trustees, people who look after and preserve the environment for future generations. It demands fair-play, equity and justice in our economic activity and moderation in politics.
When Sardar looks around the Muslim world though, what he sees is not "a community of the middle way", but communities of extremes – of obnoxious, ostentatious wealth in the midst of abject poverty, of religious zealots and self-righteous chauvinists, of despots and demagogues. He sees communities vacillating between a truncated and fossilized tradition and vague imaginings about how to rekindle and recapture the glories of Muslims' history. He sees communities of debate and concern offering plans for modernization, reform and revolution that turn out to be cul-de-sacs that do nothing or little to address the real problems, the dire condition in which so many Muslims live. Sardar also sees those who peddle the panacea of violence, the quick fix of the gun and bomb, the panic politics of animosity and destruction of supposed enemies, as if that is any answer to the predicament of making a better, more peaceful and sustainable world. Muslims are divided, sundered and factional within, he says, as much as they cherish a sense of superiority over other societies that they lack within themselves; not racing to do good deeds, but chasing all forms of human frailty and perversity with steadfast determination.
Virtuous People: Faith in Knowledge Not Blind Imitation
In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the cycle of night and day; in the ships that plough the oceans for the profit of mankind ... these are signs for people who reflect.
Where then does virtue reside? Sardar suggests that the transition from patience and prayer to the virtue of the love of knowledge is crucial to realizing how the fortitude and endurance derived from faith becomes an active, hopeful and liberating aid – and something quite distinct from, and with no connection to, fatalism. The middle community, then, consists of people who use their reason to study the natural world and think about the physical and material laws of the universe. Indeed, they even reflect on the ingenuity we as human beings are capable of
("the ships that speed through the sea"), by linking the practice of virtue to the pursuit of knowledge.
Yet blind imitation (technically known as taqlid) of religious scholars of yesteryear and today, he says, is the norm in contemporary Muslim societies. There is no virtue for Sardar in such; the Qur'an categorically denounces it "Do not follow blindly what you do not know to be true" (17:36). Instead, each believer is required to use reason, pursue knowledge in the widest sense, and gain the ability for discernment on moral and religious issues. Things moreover change. What is "good on earth" in one particular context may not be so good in another. As such, good is not defined once and for all. It has to be constantly sought, re-established from context to context, through critical engagement. This is one of the most notable virtues of “a community of the middle way": it adjusts to change, younger generations constantly question their fathers and forefathers, as society itself and our moral consciousness with it evolves and our understanding of what classifies as good changes.
Charity and Usury: Social Transformation and Degradation
God has blighted usury and blessed free giving with manifold increase.
Charity, for Sardar, based on his reading of the Qur'an, is accepting an obligation toward and responsibility for the living conditions of our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. The most fundamental basis of the Qur'anic vision is that we cannot be good in isolation. The real affirmation of faith is to appreciate the common humanity of all people and work to improve the lives of everyone. Poverty is a pernicious condition, which erodes human dignity and blights human potential. It is the duty of believers to intervene and work to eradicate the blight.
The call to give to charity can be seen as the Qur'an's way of urging Muslims to establish pragmatic and perpetual institutions for the social transformation of society. Across the Muslim world, such charitable institutions were known as waqfs, pious foundations. Muslims seeking spiritual advancement would leave a legacy in the form of property or a plot of land as a trust in perpetuity to be used for the benefit of humanity. Such trusts supported universities and hospitals, scholarship and earning, and funded research and travel. They played a vital part in enabling the flourishing of science and civilization in the classic era of Muslim civilization. Contemporary Muslims, for Sardar, have forgotten the intellectual, educational, scientific and cultural dimensions of charity.
Sardar now turns from the interpretation of the Qur'an, verse by-and-across verse, to key themes and concepts that arise, starting with prophets and revelation, and ending with nature and the environment.
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