"Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed."

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"The Learned Men of God" and Interpreting Islam For Today's World

"This religion is a science, so pay close attention to those from whom you learn it."

I think Malik ibn Anas' quote about Islam summed up this chapter pretty well.  I read with great interest about the Abbasid leader, al-Ma'mum, who wanted so much religious authority Aslan declared he almost ushered in the Muslim Papacy.  This chapter dealt mostly with "the learned men of God" or ulama. I learned many things about Islam's development first and foremost that like Judaism, it's an orthopraxic religion - one of rituals rather than belief (orthodox) such as Christianity.  This helps me understand something I've often pondered: why go back under rules like the Jews were?  Why is Islam so much a religion of extensive rules such as I read in the Old Testament?  I grew up to believe Jesus fulfilled the Law and set us free. Not to do our own thing, but to love God in a way that pleases Him. Annnnnd with God's help!  More of a relationship by following God daily and being attentive to His Spirit than by going through the motions of rituals.  Granted much of Christianity is doing. We shouldn't merely talk pretty, but "do pretty" as well!  As the book of James tells us "faith without works is dead."  So we have belief that moves us to do that which pleases God rather than - what I think of orthopraxy - doing good deeds in order to earn God's favor.  So that section of this chapter was noteworthy to me as I reflected on my own beliefs on, well, beliefs and/or practices.

Aslan shares that the ulama's chief objective was establishing who was and who was not a Muslim!  Apparently they thought their powers extended to making this call! Quite an endeavor!  A result of their labors were the Five Pillars of Islam all of which are communal practices except the shahadah which is an individual's statement of belief in God as the only God and Muhammad as God's messenger.  Prayers, fasting, obligatory charity giving and the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) were all primarily done in community with others, and, as you can tell, are actions or rituals rather than statements of belief.  Intention, however, is stressed before each of these actions so they are not - hopefully - merely rote with no heart behind the actions.  In other words, ideally they aren't merely going through the motions.

Aslan said the fasting ritual was adopted from Arabia's Jews by Muhammad who initially had his followers fast Yom Kippur with the Jews.  Later it was changed to fasting the month of Ramadan.

I found the discussion of not using metaphors for God and tawhid - the Oneness of God - very interesting.  As the author points out tawhid is not mere monotheism, it's proclaiming that God is utterly indefinable, "resembles nothing in either essence or attributes." For this reason the Quran's use of anthropomorphic traits were "grudgingly acknowledged" by both the Rationalist and Traditionalist theologians.  Quite frankly I think it's a mercy of God to describe Himself in human terms because I can understand human terms and metaphors whereas Godspeak is out of my realm. So, if God wants to communicate with us, He is wise to use ways we can comprehend.  I don't see any problem with God speaking of His face, arms, throne or even emotional traits (wrath, love, mercy, compassion.)  To me this doesn't make God human, it makes God wonderful to want me to get to know Him. He could remain aloof and outside of my realm and to some extent I guess He does since I cannot see Him sitting in the chair beside me.  But He communicates with me - in English, in a language I know and in terms I can understand!  I love this about Him!

I learned that shirk, mostly used in the context of associating partners with God, can also include any grave sin that keeps one apart from God.  So it's not just we Trinitarians who are in danger of the unpardonable sin!

Aslan told of the Ash'arite school who came up with the "don't ask why" or bila kayfa response to the Rationalists. It's the age-old reply of parents to their children who want to know why they must do such and such.  Because I said so.  Like that, this response conveys "because the Quran says so...and it's not our place to ask how or why."

The author notes that during Moses' time, his miracles were primarily conveyed through magic. Jesus' miracles involved healing and exorcisms.  And Muhammad's was through words. In fact Aslan notes that many Muslims believe Muhammad's only miracle was the Quran which basically created the Arabic language. Or helped standardize it anyway.

The Traditionalists argued the Quran was not only the Speech of God, it is God, therefore, it was uncreated and eternal. This raised questions of whether God spoke Arabic and is every copy of the Quran a copy of God.  The Rationalists, on the other hand, said the Quran merely reflected God.

The author introduced me to baraka, the concept of the words themselves possessing a spiritual power. (If the word IS God, you'd hope so, eh?) This is most famously and artistically expressed through the beauty of calligraphy since Muslims frown on icons and pictures of spiritual things. I didn't realize there were strict rules for reciting the Quran. Tajwid regulates "when one is permitted to stop during a recitation and when it is forbidden to stop, when to prostrate oneself and when to rise, when to breathe and when not to take a breath, which consonants to stress and how long to hold each vowel." 

As for interpreting the Quran, there are tafsir, concerned with the literal interpretation in light of historical context and chronology, and ta'wil which is more mystical and able to be interpreted by only a select few.  Most Traditionalists have held that what was appropriate to Muhammad and the Muslim community of 7th century Arabia must be appropriate for the ummah at all times, "regardless of the circumstances."   Shariah was "developed by the Ulama as the basis for the judgment of all actions in Islam as good or bad, to be rewarded or punished."  The ulama used the Quran, hadiths ("the bulk of what are considered to be sound traditions are deemed so not because of their isnads [a chain of transmission in order to validate hadith] were particularly strong, but because they reflected the majority beliefs and practices of the community"), drawing parallels from the present community to Muhammad's and ijma which addresses situations not covered in the Quran or hadiths.  One problem with ijma is that it created Islamic precedence which many will not allow to change and grow as society changes and grows. 

Aslan makes the case for the Quran being living and breathing and changing as times changed. He points to verses that contradict others - abrogated by God or Muhammad - as times changed. He suggests this may be why Muhammad never had the Quran written down because it was subject to change based on how the community grew.  He argues that "while God may not change, the Revelation most certainly did, and without apology." The idea that the Quran cannot be interpreted in ways that make sense to modern times and Muslims must live as the Prophet and other early Muslims did is "simply an untenable position in every sense."



sarah said...

Sussanne, there are so many things I agree with in your post. "faith without works is dead." I'm 100% on that point.

There was a lot of new info for me. As for why the Muslims are like the Jews - it's because their history will follow the same course - as is the course of the followers of most messengers. As the message spread and there are more followers and the original prophet dies people begin to mix power/politics/control with the religion and the religion becomes more rule orientated. My personal opinion is that people are searching for spirituality and are taught that they will find it by following rules and respecting the clerics.

The difference is that the Christians are folloers of the Messiah who came to revive the faith and again emphasise the personal relationship with God. But you can see too that the clergy has also become a potent force in Christianity although not to the same extent as amongst the Jews.

I'm sorry but I am not a follower of because I said so - I believe in communicating directly with God and speaking to Him. There is a great hadith which says something to the effect of God will be to you as you think of Him. I believe in that.

Susanne said...

Sarah, I really enjoyed your comment! Yeah, I didn't take you for one who believed in the 'because I said so' thought. :-)

What especially was new to you from this post? Several things were new to me, but I'm not a Muslim so I've not studied the religion extensively. I'm trying to take notes so I can record them. I love everyone's feedback PLUS by recording my notes, it helps me remember what I read and maybe it will be helpful in knowing these things in the future.

I agree that people are searching for spirituality and also I think most people like checklists. They think if they know what is expected (a list of rules/requirements/rituals) they can go down the list and do things and it makes them feel they've accomplished something. Trying to listen for God's voice and being attentive to His Spirit for knowing how to act in certain situations is much less concrete.

I appreciate your taking time to comment! I enjoy what you have to add.

Suroor said...

Interesting summary, Susie!

The Quran also refers to God's hands and face and throne and the Asharis are very rigid about this view. They believe God DOES have a face and hands etc.

I can understand the logic that God wishes to communicate to His creation in their terms but what strikes me as unusual is that you will perhaps not read that kind of description in Jesus' words. God having a form is a more Jewish/Muslim (or at least more of an OT concept rather than a NT concept) concept where as Jesus taught about God in terms of a spirit that we "cannot see", the "image of the invisible God" (although I agree some prophets did describe God with snow hair and all).

I was thinking how Islam (and even the Prophet's behaviour) are seen as very different in Medina from Mecca. Interestingly, Muslims were closer to Christians in Mecca and in the Quran you would notice a slight bias towards Christians. That was the time when Islam was more fluid, less rigid, without concrete laws, and more into serving humanity. In Medina after interactions with Jews, the religion gradually became more practical as well as political. The mystic element slowly began to be replaced by religious laws. I feel that is where the natural progression from Judaism to Christianity to Islam took a turn back to Judaism. The Jews had rules for everything and they used their rigid rules to reflect piety and religiosity and it must have impressed the Muslims. There are many ahadith in which the Prophet is seen to ask the Jews what kind of punishment they had for this or that offense. It was a Jewish couple's adultery that caused the Jews to approach Muhammad for judgment who was the sheikh of that time and he referred the Torah and the rabbis to declare that they should be stoned. Muslim practice of stoning began after that incident. In fact later Muslims wondered whether the Prophet stoned adulterers before the revelation of the verse on whipping the errant couple or after it. Similarly I was reading today that the mass slaughter of Banu Qurayza was based on Deuteronomy 20. I wonder what Islam would have been if Muslims had never migrated to Medina?

Lat said...

Abbasid leadership is also said to have the most number of hadiths produced,so I've read in a few blogs.so I'm surprised if the some hadiths are leaning towards this regime.Afterall hadiths reflect the opinions of those who transmit them, favourable or not, according to their whims and fansy.

I think the prophet not only faced trouble with the polytheists at that time but also from the Jews.Like Suroor said above,about the adultery fatwa that the Jews approached the prophet which I've read from a book that it's longer necessary to follow as Quran stipulated whipping.Furthermore the Jews themselves did not accept the prophet.So why follow that law anyway.Why the prophet was more 'leaning' towards the law abiding Jews' than Christianity's spiritual aspect could explain the way Arabs lived at that time.Maybe they too were more concerned about laws and codes just like the Jews were and that's why the acceptance of the Jews,belonging to a monotheistic faith,was important to the prophet whose message,the Quran,spoke alot of OT prophets.

He also spoke well of Christianity or rather about the Nazarenes,somehow like this name better :).I guess the Christian King giving refuge and some other stories of monks gave a very favourable attitude towards Muslims.In fact Jesus is more honored not just in the Quran but also in hadiths with him coming for a second round of enlightenment and salvation than any OT prophet.I think there's lot of biases here probably because of influence of Jews and Christian views( covncerts or not), not necessarily Arabic views.

To answer Suroor,want to try my luck :),

"...if Muslims had never migrated to Medina?"

1.It's possible that Islam wuld have dealt with more spiritual matters of the heart since he didn't had to bother about fleeing and protecting his family and friends from his Arab enemies.And thus his preaching would have been more peaceful and stable.

2.Islam could have been a more pluralistic religion even living side by side with polytheists and Jews (of course that would mean a more complying Quraish)instead of the rigid form it takes in some countries.I wouldn't say all as in our region here, Islam is not that rigid.

3.His wife,Kahtijah,would have lived longer and he wouldn't have the need for so many wives :D and more interactions with Christians could have taken place instead of the constant need of Jew acceptance.

But as we know a life of a prophet or great men is never made easy.If only it was....

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Susanne said...

Suroor, I liked what you pointed out about Jesus not speaking as much about the hands and face of God. I always remember Jesus' words to the Samaritan woman at the well whom he told "God is spirit and they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." At that time Jews said you could only worship God at Jerusalem whereas the Samaritan worshiped on a mountain in their area. In another place Philip asked to see God. "Just show us the Father, Jesus, and then all will be settled." Did he want this concrete proof that if he could only see God then he will fully believe Jesus? I don't know. But Jesus' reply was this:

"9Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? 10Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work."

Now does this mean God's Holy Spirit was within Jesus shining through him, perhaps? Or that Jesus IS the hands, feet, and face of God? God translated into "human terms" so to speak? God is invisible and Jesus is said to be the image OF the invisible God so how can an invisible God even have an image? Unless it's God's Spirit in Jesus? It's all interesting to ponder now that I've typed this! :)

I never really thought of Jesus not using hands, feet, face of God so much as the OT and Islam. I guess because Jesus called God "Father" which goes way beyond a physical description, but a *relationship*. It's not just some random man, but our Father! And for those of us who have had good earthly fathers, this should be very comforting. Jesus said the Holy Spirit's role would be to teach us all truth, guide us, convict us of sin, lead us to repentance....really a lot of these are traits of good fathers, aren't they? God provides for us, cares for us, loves us -- all traits of a good father.

"(although I agree some prophets did describe God with snow hair and all)."

I think the Revelation of Jesus Christ written by John did this mostly as he tried to put his vision into human terms. It's like if you saw an airplane 2000 years ago...how would you describe it to your children? As a large, mechanical bird that makes a loud noise? John used words they knew, terminology they knew to explain some of the things he saw. Also white hair is a sign of wisdom and some people translate Revelation this way to show that God is wise and the sword proceeding from his mouth is the truth. The Bible is sometimes referred to as a sword of truth so this symbolism may explain some of it.

" I wonder what Islam would have been if Muslims had never migrated to Medina? "

Wow that whole paragraph was highly interesting! When Samer first started telling me about his faith three years ago and then I started reading more and more about it, I was like "WHY is this so much like the Mosaic Law?" Why is EVERYTHING regulated? Jesus set us free! Why did they go back under the Law? Even Paul argued with the Galatians about this! He said Jesus set you free. Don't let people trick you into believing salvation is by works again!

I remember Samer wanted me to become a Muslim, but I would ask "why do you want to put me under bondage again, Samer? Jesus set me free. I don't have to live by those rules of Moses or Muhammad." :)

Really loved your comment. Lots of interesting tidbits - thank you!

Susanne said...

Lat, I really appreciated your perspective on the influence of Jewish and Christian teachings because of Muhammad's interaction with them. Yes, maybe you are right about the people preferring laws and codes - that's an interesting thought. DO people prefer that so they will have a guideline for living? I'm thinking on this.

I love that you answered Suroor's question with your own thoughts! It's kind of fun to speculate on such things, isn't it?

I appreciate your comments as always! :)

Suroor said...

Lat, some very interesting points in your second paragraph! Maybe the Prophet noticed that Arabs were also fond of laws or perhaps he noticed that Medina was a little better than Mecca because the Jews had rules whereas the pagans did their own thing and were lawless? Oh Lat, I really liked all your speculations of what could have been :D

Susie, so do you agree that Jesus had a slightly different view of God?

Susanne said...

Yes, I'd say so. :)