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THEMES AND CONCEPTS

THE ONLY CONSTANT IS CHANGE

Verses that appear contradictory often expand on what was said earlier, or explore the same issue from a different perspective or in a different context. To prove a particular point, the Qur'an uses one argument and sometimes another. It explores the same idea in different contexts, so that verses about the same topics can have different aspects. The underlying themes that emerge relate to change, changing contexts, multiple perspectives and a constant struggle to discover what constitutes goodness in particular circumstances. While emphasizing, then, that change is essential, the Qur'an insists that it should be measured and lead to social and cultural transformation without turmoil or violence. It is not change that should lead society; rather, society should lead change. Equally important is the point that change necessitates a shift in perspective.

USING HISTORY AS A GUIDE TO THE PITFALLS OF THE FUTURE

All creation, for Sardar then, is not only subject to change but has also to accommodate and adjust to change, or lose itself. The Prophet himself had to adjust to change: first he prayed facing Jerusalem, then, after the instruction from the Qur'an, he changed his direction toward Mecca. So change is the only constant in the universe. The Qur'an, then, gives particular consideration to history and is full of historical passages. As such, it uses history as a guide to the pitfalls of the future. The emphasis is always on the lessons that can be drawn from the historical narrative. Indeed the narratives of ancient peoples were used for four specific purposes:

• First, to encourage the study of history – "Many ways of life have passed before your time; travel about the earth and get to see what has happened to those who give lie to the truth" (3:137).

• Second, to promote the study of historiography – what use is the study of history if one cannot develop theories and ideas on ideologies, cultures and social foundations which bring power and prosperity to nations or lead them to decay? The analysis of the past "should be a clear lesson for all men" (3:138).

• Third, the believers are challenged to redeem the history of the future; to put the lessons into practice – like Moses, history can be used "to bring your people out of the depth of darkness into the light: and serve as a reminder for all who are patient and grateful in adversity" (14:5).

• Finally, as an accumulation of these goals, to infuse a consciousness of history.

What matters in the final analysis is not might, power, the affluence of material means or even the accumulation ofknowledge, but righteous conduct. Revelation demands that we constantly think outside the box of our earthly concerns by keeping in mind the intersection of time and timeliness.

TRUTH AND PLURALITY: HUSBAND EVERY PART OF GOD'S CREATION

The plurality of religion, for Sardar as such, is a constant and recurring theme in the Qur'an. Far from adopting a hostile attitude to other religions, the Qur'an promotes, he says, acceptance of religious plurality and treats other religions with equality. Both the Torah and the Bible, in fact, are regarded by the Qur'an as revealed texts.

Jews and Muslims, for Sardar moreover, are closer to each other than Muslims and Christians. Both have similar codes of conduct, laws and jurisprudence (the Shari'a in Islam and the Halacha in Judaism). The dietary arrangements of both religions are almost the same (halal and kosher). That is why, when persecuted in Christendom, Jews always found a welcoming refuge in Muslim lands; in Moorish Spain, Jews and Muslims produced a dynamic, learned society with a strong accent on multiculturalism.

Instead of arguing over theological issues, we should ensure that there is freedom, equity, fairness and accountability in human societies. We have to ensure the eradication of poverty and give everyone the dignity of fair wages and gainful employment according to their abilities, education and justice for all. Humanity is one, but it is a humanity that thrives on diversity and difference.

Individual and Community: Our Relations with All God's Creations

The term the Qur'an uses for "community" is umma. Its single most important implication, for Sardar, is not that the Muslims are a single global community, but that Muslims should be defined by how they become a community in relation to each other, other communities, and the natural world.

It is the concept of taqwa, as previously mentioned then, that relates individuals to society. Most Muslims, Sardar maintains, think that such "God consciousness" is acquired through prayer and devotion. But for him it manifests itself, rather, through our human relationships, and our relations with all God's creations. Taqwa is therefore represented on how loving and caring you are, how you display humility and respect, how you interact with your environment, how you participate in building a dynamic, viable community. So we have not only to concentrate, communally as such, on individual acts of goodness, but also to work to ensure that the institutions and organizations of our society are fit for the purpose of giving everyone the best opportunity to fulfil their potential and flourish. It is about making the right decisions about the provision of services – everything from energy and sewage to schools and hospitals – so that the needs of all people are catered for. It is about building peace, ensuring mutual tolerance, working for and insisting on good government – all actions necessary to build taqwa in society. It is about making reasoned and informed choices, moreover, about science and technology and all the ethical questions they raise. It is about inclusion and participation for all people in the life of society.

Reason and Knowledge: Pursuing Knowledge as a Form of Worship

Reason then, after revelation, in the Qur'an, is the second most important source for discovering and delineating the "signs of God". The cosmos is presented as a "text' that can be read, explored and understood with the use of reason: "in the alternation of night and day, in the rain God provides, sending it down from the sky and reviving the dead earth with it, and in his shifting of winds there are signs for those who use their reason" (45:5). Thus, reason is a path to salvation; it is not something you set aside to have faith, it is the means to attaining faith, a tool of discovery and an instrument for getting closer to God.

Knowledge as such is not the domain of a chosen few, but every individual should seek knowledge as a religious duty. The emphasis on knowledge in the Qur'an, for Sardar then, is eye opening: again and again we are urged to study nature, explore the cosmos, measure and calculate, discover the situation and histories of other nations, travel the earth in search of knowledge, learning and wisdom. "It is he who has made the sun a shining radiance and the moon a light, determining phases for it so you might know the number of years and how to calculate them. God did not create all this without a true purpose" (10:5).

The word used for knowledge in the Qur'an is ilm. It signifies that knowledge is a form of remembering God. Thus the pursuit of knowledge becomes a form of worship.

The Qur'an seeks to establish a society of "those who know", a knowledge society, a society where reason and reflection, thought and learning, are not only valued but also grounded in everyday reality. The situation in the Muslim world today, where science and learning are conspicuous by their almost total absence, where irrationality and fanaticism are the norm, indicates just how far many Muslims have deviated from the teachings of the Qur'an.

The question for knowledge, in fact, is a challenge to seek to comprehend that which serves the purpose of achieving greater justice and equity for all, while accepting that however much we know, we remain limited, finite and fallible beings who do not know it all. In a Qur'anic perspective, knowledge does not confer mastery and it always carries responsibilities and obligations to distinguish between what we can do and whether it can be done.

Nature and Environment: The Theology of Ecology

The Qur'an, in the final analysis, contains a "theology of ecology". The themes of the unity of nature and our responsibilities toward the environment run throughout the sacred text. Nature is invoked in numerous verses. Moreover the most central concepts of the Qur'an, as far as Sardar is concerned, have a direct bearing on ecological thinking and environmental action.

Tahweed – the Islamic term for unity – firstly becomes an all-embracing value in relation to the unity of humanity, of man and nature, and of the unity of knowledge and values. As such, nature is not there simply to be exploited and abused. Indeed, given the intimate connection between nature and man, its abuse is nothing but self-abuse. Just as human life is sacred, nature in the Qur'an is a sacred institution. The earth, "with its palm trees, its husk grains, its fragrant plants" (55: 10-13) is there for our benefit. But it has to be treated with respect, justice and balance.

The second most important concept in the Qur'an, as far as nature is concerned, and as we have seen, is khalifa – trustee. As trustees of God on earth, it is our individual and collective responsibility to maintain the balance or harmony of nature, preserve and conserve the environment with all its flora and fauna, and treat God's creation with respect and reverence. Nature therefore is a trust or amana, and a theatre for our moral and ethical struggle. While we enjoy temporary control over nature, we have no sovereign authority.

The Qur'an views nature, then, essentially from a teleological perspective, and therefore the claims of "dominion" over her has no place. In the Qur'an, nature is a "sign" of God: "there are truly signs in the creation of heaven and earth, and in the alternation of day and night" (3:190-91). All creation is sacred; there is no such thing as a profane planet. Looking after the environment, and maintaining harmony and balance between people and nature, are thus part of our function as human beings. When we cease to appreciate the beauty of our planet, we also forget our true origins and final destination. To be mindful of God, the Qur'an tells us, is to be close to nature.

Amana and khalifa are not just theoretical concepts. The Prophet established two types of inviolate zones bordering around towns and watercourses: haram and hima. The haram zones, within which certain activities were forbidden, were maintained around wells, watercourses, towns and cities. Around wells a space was left to protect them from impairment, to provide room for their operation and maintenance, safeguard the water from pollution, provide resting areas for livestock, and room for irrigation facilities. Around towns and cities, people could not cut trees or forage or burn, to ensure that wildlife and habitat were protected and the carrying capacity of the town or city was not exceeded. The hima zones were set aside outside cities and towns specifically for the conservation of forests and wildlife.

The Qur'anic verse "all the creatures that crawl on the earth and those that fly with their wings are communities like yourselves" (6:28) led moreover to the first full-fledged charter, according to Sardar, of rights of livestock and animals. Contemporary Muslim societies, sadly though, have lost much of their traditional consciousness and concern for the environment. The reasons are varied: not least, the decline of Muslim civilization itself, along with the ravages of colonialism and then the mad rush for modernization. But in the age of climate change, Muslims are duty bound, in Sardar's view, to return to the ecological insights of the Qur'an and to implement them in their individual lives, as well as their use and treatment of the environment.

Sardar then turns to the final part of his Reading the Qur'an.

 
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