A discussion of some of the Qur'an's most troubling text
by Jamal Rahman
Posted October 15, 2010 (yes! magazine blog)
The sacred texts of all religions contain many verses of exquisite beauty and wisdom that fully satisfy the universal longings of the human heart. But it is equally true that all our texts also contain painful and awkward verses that do not enrich the human spirit or support universal values. To those who may be offended by this second statement because they believe their scriptures are the inspired and irreproachable words of God, spiritual teachers explain that scriptures might be divine, but the human consciousness with which we approach our scriptures is less than perfect. In the wise words of Mahatma Gandhi, “God reveals His truth to instruments that are imperfect.”
Facing the Difficult Verses
For purposes of healing the wounds between people of faith, and understanding the scriptures that inform our beliefs and practices, it is helpful to acknowledge and embrace the difficult verses in our holy scriptures and spend time with them. Rather than avoiding them or going through mental gymnastics to justify them, we should consider them an invitation to allow a higher light from within to shine on them. As the Prophet Muhammad said, we need to move from “knowledge of the tongue” to “knowledge of the heart.”
This is a large part of the work that my Interfaith Amigos and I have been doing in the years since 9/11. Within the goodwill and safety of our trusted friendship, we are able to address the difficult passages in our scriptures and expand our understanding by bringing to bear the “knowledge of the heart” that has been developing steadily in the years of our friendship. The willingness to bare our vulnerabilities and share our feelings honestly about our own awkward verses and also about verses in each others’ scriptures that give us pain has greatly fostered authenticity in our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the sacred texts that we hold so dear.
For me as a Muslim, the Quran offers insights and wisdom for this endeavor. “Of knowledge We have given you but a little,” says the Holy Book (17:85), and every verse has many levels of meaning and “none understands except those who possess the inner heart” ( 3:7). Paradoxes exist, says the Quran, because, “Of everything We have created opposites so that you might know that only God is One” (51:49). When all else fails, the Quran also offers two ardent prayers: “O my Sustainer! Open for me my heart! (20:25), and “O my Sustainer, increase me in knowledge!” (20:114).
So What about the Sword Verses?
Among the most problematic verses in the Quran are the so-called “sword verses” exemplified by the verse commonly summarized as “Kill the unbeliever.” Sadly and tragically, this verse has been quoted countless times both by Islamic extremists in support of terrorism against the “ungodly” West and by misinformed Christians as proof that Islam was spread at the point of a sword. But neither side is correct in its understanding of this verse.
In the first place, the verse is seriously limited and defined by its historical context. This 7th century revelation came at a time when the Islamic community in Arabia was a tiny embryonic group in Medina under constant attack by the Quraiysh tribe and their allies in Mecca, who were overwhelmingly superior in arms and numbers. In the second place, the verse is even more seriously qualified by its textual context. Some of the qualifications appear in Chapter 2. The verse immediately preceding the sword verse says, “Fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors” (2:190), while the verses immediately following it say, “but if they cease, God is Oft-forgiving, most Merciful…. let there be no hostility….and know that God is with those who restrain themselves” (2:192-4).
Thus the verses that surround the sword verse soften its sharp edges. The verse refers to defensive fighting and if the attacker inclines to peace, the Muslim must cease fighting. However, even if I factor in those qualifications, I have to acknowledge that it is extremely uncomfortable and confusing to read “Kill the unbeliever” as a divine revelation. Why would the All-Merciful and All-Powerful God, who has infused every human with divine breath and holds every human heart between divine fingers, instruct anyone to kill? Why would the “Light of the Heavens and Earth” advise a Muslim engaged in battle against his attackers to “smite them at their necks” (47:4)? Some of my co-religionists may call me naive and unrealistic and refer me to other verses in the Quran, but when presented with such a puzzlement, I take refuge in Rumi’s utterance: “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” What else can one do with a verse like this?
A general principle of Quranic interpretation is that if a verse does not seem to support the overall message of the Quran or reflect God’s divine attributes, we have to dig deeper to achieve a more enlightened understanding. So in addition to establishing the contextual limits on this particular revelation—allowing one to kill only in self-defense—it is critical to emphasize that this verse is not about a divine permission to kill non-believers simply because of their non-belief or to gain power or control. Such an interpretation would place the verse in direct conflict with the spirit and content of the universal verses in the Quran.
In an abundance of verses celebrating pluralism and diversity, the Quran explains that God could easily have made all of humanity “one single people” but instead, by divine design, chose to establish diversity so that you might “vie, then, with one another other in doing good works!”(5:48) and “get to know one another” (49:13). The Holy Book emphatically says, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and makes it clear that the passage to heaven depends not on gender or religion but essentially on doing “righteous deeds” ( 4:124 and 5:69). Except when in mortal danger at the hands of an enemy, Muslims are commanded to repel evil with something which is better so that an enemy becomes a bosom friend (41:34).
A Metaphorical Understanding
In a continuing attempt to advance my understanding of this difficult sword verse, I have discussed it with both scholars and students. Some of the scholars, who happen to be Hindus who are fully conversant with the Quran, believe that the revelation in question is about God’s exhortation to humanity to be courageous and take action in the face of unavoidable attack by others. Indeed, this line of thought is consistent with another revelation in the Quran: “For if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques—in which God’s name is abundantly extolled—would surely have been destroyed” (22:40).
Reinforcing the need for courage when under attack, the scholars pointed to an epic conversation in the Bhagavad Gita between Krishna and the mortal Prince Arjuna on the eve of engaging in the battle of Kurukshetra. Viewing the multitude of soldiers on the opposing side, the prince hesitates and laments to Krishna about spilling the blood of “cousins.” Krishna berates the mortal for using false piety to cover up his fear and lack of courage and tells him that without action, the cosmos would fall out of order. Then, Krishna utters the immortal words, “If any man thinks he slays, and another thinks he is slain, neither knows the way of truth. The Eternal in man cannot kill; the Eternal in man cannot die.”
The students, who were young Muslims in high school, suggested that the verse should be interpreted metaphorically. After all, they pointed out, the Quran clearly states that some verses are literal and some are metaphorical (3:7) but it doesn’t say which ones are which! To these young, creative minds, the sword verse is about slaying the idols of arrogance and ignorance within ourselves.
And finally, I consulted my old friend, the 13th-century sage Rumi, who reminded me that any interpretation depends on our level of consciousness and our intention, on what we hope to learn. “A bee and wasp drink from the same flower,” says Rumi. “One produces nectar and the other, a sting.” When I’m troubled by the way the sword verse could be interpreted, I remember that the way of Islam is to produce nectar.
The Little Mosque in Medina Jamal Rahman on what we can learn from our places of worship. by Jamal Rahman Posted September 3, 2010 (yes! magazine blog)
The current flap over the proposed Islamic center-cum-mosque in New York City offers a good opportunity to reflect on the nature and purpose of places of worship, and to explore the importance of mosques in Islamic spirituality.
Mosques (or masjids, as they are called in Arabic) come in many sizes and styles, from the humblest storefront prayer room in a shopping mall to the gleaming Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. I have been privileged to spend time in the sacred spaces of many mosques in Muslim countries, including the awe-inspiring grand mosque in Mecca. But the house of worship that abides and resonates in my heart is one that I have never physically visited: the little mosque in Medina. This worship space was painstakingly built by the Prophet Muhammad and his community after his hijra, or migration, in the 7th century c.e., from the hostile environment of Mecca to Medina. For me, that space represents the heart of Islam and many of my favorite lessons: Bow in Adoration The location of this little mosque, adjoining the Prophet’s living quarters, offers a profound lesson about how to live a fulfilling life: We must devote equal attention to both the visible and invisible worlds. It is critical that we participate fully in the bazaar of life and discharge our earthly responsibilities. This work is essential and sacred. But the visible world is, in Rumi’s words, “a place of more or less, a place of expenditure,” and we must also tend to our spiritual enrichment by working equally hard in the invisible world, which Rumi calls “a place of income.” Thus, while the Quran offers many teachings about how to live responsibly in the visible world, it also tells us to “Bow in adoration and draw closer” (96:19)—clearly an invitation to enter the sacred space of the invisible world in a very physical way. A traditional saying reminds us of the beauty of body prayers: “One prostration of prayer to God frees you from a thousand prostrations to your ego.” This ritual body prayer is derived from the celebrated epiphany of the Prophet, called the Night Journey. Rapt in meditation late one evening, he found himself in an exquisite vision being transported horizontally from Mecca to Jerusalem and then vertically through the seven levels of heaven. As the Prophet ascended the levels, he was dazzled by the sight of myriad angels bowing and prostrating to God, while from their lips poured words of praise and thanksgiving. Muhammad saw this as a sign that prayer must consist essentially of praising God and expressing gratitude and that we, like the angels, must use the gift of our bodies to express our adoration. Respect across Faiths In the little mosque in Medina, the Prophet received many delegations of Jews and Christians for conversations and negotiations that sometimes were lengthy and extended into their service times. At those times the Prophet begged his guests to perform their Shabbat and Sunday services in the mosque for “it is simply a place consecrated to God.” Thus, in the seventh century the Prophet established a model for interfaith dialogue and celebration. Today in the twenty-first century, we Muslims need to ask ourselves honestly how many mosques follow the Prophet’s model. Do we open our doors to people of other faiths so that they can pray in a place that is “simply consecrated to God”? May we take to heart the utterance of the Prophet: “The character of a Wali (friend of God) is based on nothing more than graciousness and generosity.” Equality for Women One of the things that touches me deeply about the mosque in Medina is that in the early years of Islam, women had a role in the religious life of the community that was unusual at that time—and in this. In the seventh century women helped build the first mosque in Medina. They performed the call to prayer, prayed alongside men, and sometimes led the ritual prayer. A woman, Umm Waarqabint Abdullah, was especially trained by the Prophet himself to act as prayer leader for her whole tribe throughout her life. Today, women in mosques, with notable exceptions, are often relegated to separate and inferior spaces, and not allowed to pray in the main sanctuary. What is astonishing is that all these traditions of secluding women have arisen from male medieval consensus. It is incumbent on us Muslims to reflect on the role of women in the first mosque in the Islamic world and take inspiration and guidance from that example. The Quran says: “For men and women who surrender themselves to God . . . and for men and women who remember God unceasingly, for them God has readied forgiveness and a supreme recompense” (33:35). It is not easy for men in patriarchal societies to renounce their supposed superiority over women. In a telling story about the eighth-century mystic Rabia, one of the most beloved female saints of Islam, several men confronted her and boasted, “The crown of Prophethood has been placed on men’s heads. The belt of nobility has been fastened around men’s waists. No woman has ever been a prophet.” “Ah,” Rabia replied, “but egoism and self-worship and ‘I am your Lord most high’ has never sprung from a woman’s breast. All these have been the specialty of men.”
Blush in This World During the last days of his life, the Prophet insisted on spending time in his little mosque. In a weak and strained voice he repeatedly asked his community for forgiveness. Had he hurt anyone by word or deed? Did he owe anyone money? Many of his followers wept at his humility, sincerity, and persistence in asking these questions. One person raised his hand and said he had lent the Prophet some money, whereupon the Prophet repaid him with deep gratitude. In those final days of the Prophet’s life, the energy of the little mosque was filled with vibrations of forgiveness.
May we take Muhammad’s example to heart and ask for forgiveness from those in our personal lives whom we may have hurt in any way. May we also seek forgiveness for any harm we may have caused, through ignorance or arrogance, in the name of our religion. When asked in the little mosque in Medina why he insisted on asking for forgiveness, the Prophet replied, “It is better to blush in this world than in the next.”
Islam means to surrender to God in peace. The journey of surrender is the lifelong work of transforming the ego, opening the heart and becoming conscious of God. We need to bring divinity into the center of our lives. The guidance, inspiration and support of a spiritual director, spiritual teacher or spiritual friend is crucial to this process. The 13th-century sage Rumi says that whoever travels without a guide needs two hundred years for a two-day journey.
A Muslim spiritual director, teacher or friend has abiding faith in the spiritual guidance abounding in the Qur'an, insights of the Prophet Muhammad and teachings of Islamic sages. The Qur'an tells us that "God is closer to you than your jugular vein" and "Everywhere you turn is the Face of Allah." To remove the veils between us and our creator, the Prophet Muhammad says: "Know thyself and you will know thy Lord" and "Die before you die." He also explains the role of a spiritual teacher and companion: "The teacher kindles the light; the oil is already in the lamp."
Mystics advise seekers to exercise discernment in their choice of a spiritual guide. Choose someone who reminds you of God, one who counsels you not with the tongue of words but with the tongue of deeds. Rumi's prayer for us is that over a lifetime we connect with several spiritual teachers, guides and friends so that we can "come out of the Circle of Time and enter the Circle of Love."
Read More About Jamal
November 2009: "Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: A Pastor, Rabbi and a Sheikh Share a Deep, Abiding Friendship." Article in Northwest Prime Time.
November 1, 2009: "Now Is the Time for Interfaith Dialogue." Opinion piece in The Bellingham Herald.