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ISL: Monotheists and the `Other` - An Islamic perspective
« on: February 17, 2007, 08:31:23 PM »
Monotheists and the `Other` An Islamic perspective in an era of religious pluralism
By: Dr. Fathi Osman

The Common Origin of all Children of Adam
The Spiritual Essence of All Human Beings
Observing the One God in Relations with Others
Human Differences: The Inborn Ones
Gender Differences
Religious Differences
The Use of Force
The Acquired Differences
The Environment
The Bitter Reality

For monotheists the 'other' may be another monotheist who shares with them the same beliefs but belongs to a different ethnic group, physically, culturally or both, or may be another monotheist with partly different but still monotheistic beliefs. The 'other' may be a non-believer, a polytheist, an atheist or whatever else. People have inborn differences regarding which they have no choice, such as physical characteristics including the color or the language and inherited culture. Besides, there are acquired differences such as wealth and education. Religion stands in the middle between the 'inborn' and 'acquired' differences, since faith is supposed to be decided individually by a personal voluntary conviction, whereas in reality it is mostly inherited. Gender may also be seen as a considerable difference, even within the groups of monotheists who belong to the same ethnic group and share the same belief.

All monotheists believe in the 'One Lord' who has created the entire human race as well as all forms of life and the whole cosmos; and all of creation is under His control, "the Lord of all being." Monotheists ought to look upon the 'other' on the basis of their belief in the Supreme Lord, but they are mostly interlocked in what their physical senses catch, and their interests are often concerned with what is in this world, rather than with 'abstract' matters of faith. Besides, most people are inclined to keep their worldly relations and their relation to the One God in two strictly separate compartments, with no allowance for interaction. If our time is witnessing the barriers shrinking in geography, in time, in space, in the atom and between the concrete substance and energy, isn't it time for a whole-some wholeness of the human being as an essential prerequisite for a wholesome wholeness of humankind? And what can achieve such a whole-some wholeness of the human
individual and the entire human race better than a genuine belief in the "one Lord Supreme of all being?"

1. The Common Origin of all Children of Adam

The Islamic perspective shares with the entire Abrahamic faith the idea that Adam and Eve represent the origin of all humanity. The Quran states that the children of Adam and his wife enjoy the physical, intellectual, expressive and psychological- spiritual gifts conferred by God on the human species in its totality to dignify the "homo sapiens" (Quran 17:70), in order to enable this human species to carry out the 'development' of themselves and of the earth in this world, with which they are entrusted by their Creator (Quran 11:61). All human beings are accountable for human and material development, for their own thoughts and actions, and for their relations with the 'other' and with the nature around them.

The diversity of humankind is enriched by the way in which individual and group specialties can complement each other through interaction and cooperation (Quran 49:13). The inborn differences represent an enriching variety which is an outstanding sign of God's all-mightiness, all-wisdom, all-providence and all-grace in His relations with His creation (Quran 30:22).

With regard to the common origin of humankind, the Quran stresses that Adam and Eve - and subsequently all men and women - are created from the same "living entity" (nafs wahida), so the first woman is created from the same "living entity" as the first man, and not from a certain part of the first man's body (Quran 4:1).1 - According to the Quran, both Adam and his wife shared the same responsibility in eating from the forbidden tree, and both repented to God and were granted forgiveness before carrying out their mission of "development" on earth (Quran 7:19-26). In this way, there are no grounds for any gender discrimination from the beginning of time, the creation of the first man and the first woman. Both are equally addressed in the Quran and both, men and women, are specified distinctively, one beside the other, in many verses, underlining the independent responsibility of each and their equality in this respect.2

2. The Spiritual Essence of All Human Beings

The Quran states that God has breathed into the first human being of His spirit (Quran 15:29; 38:72) and that every human being has been initially granted a spiritual compass to direct him/her to the Lord God: "And as your Lord brings forth their offspring for the loins of the children of Adam, and calls upon them to bear witness about themselves 'Am I not your Lord?,' they answer, 'Yes, indeed, we do bear witness thereto.' [Of this We remind you] lest you say on the Day of Resurrection, 'Verily, we were unaware of this,' or lest you say, 'Verily it was but our forefathers who - in times' gone by - associated others with God, and we were but their late offspring' " (Quran 7:172-173).3 It is the human responsibility to maintain one's spiritual fitness and development (Quran 91:7-10). The successive messages of God have been sent to let human beings make the best of the spiritual equipment that has always existed in every human being. Seen in this perspective, every human
being is a "potential" believer, and being human has been inseparable from spirituality since creation. We have to remember this whenever we deal with any human being, whether such a human being maintains and makes use of this invaluable gift of God or not: for in any case, the divine spirit is in all children of Adam and his female mate, and this "common gift" provides common ground for mutual understanding and compassion. There is no place in monotheism for a monopoly of the truth and arrogance about it, since the truth by its nature is common among all and open to all.

Directing human beings towards their Creator, Lord and Cherisher, is meant to liberate everyone from being subjugated to any degrading power, going from powers within themselves, whims or inferiority and superiority complexes, to pressuring forces of the world around them and of persons who enjoy social, economic, political or any other sort of power over them. Such a unique liberation of the human being cannot be achieved by any philosophy or law, but only by faith in the one God. It simultaneously implants in the human mind and heart that, since the One Unique Supreme Lord is the only one who is incomparable ("there is nothing like Him; Quran 42:11; 112:4), all "others" are God's creatures and all human beings are equal in being created with the same potential by the One God. As monotheism establishes human freedom and equality in this way, we can understand how true and significant it is what Jesus said, "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free"
(John 8.32). At an early stage of his life, Jesus went into the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath and when he stood up to read the Scriptures, there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah, and when he opened the book, he found this passage: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; He sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised" (Luke 4.16-18; see Isaiah 61.1).

Thus, belief in the One God liberates human beings from within the deepest depth. The liberation of the Israelites from Pharaoh's slavery was fundamentally achieved through the conceptual and spiritual-moral power of the liberating faith in the One God. The Quran indicates that God sent the Prophet to teach people what is right and what is wrong, and by so doing he "lifts from them their burdens and the shackles that were upon them" (Quran 7:157). Many Sufis have stated impressively that the deepest level of submission to God is the highest level of human freedom.

3. Observing the One God in Relations with Others

The belief in the One God, then, aims to benefit the human beings in their relations with "others", since God Himself is not affected in his all-mightiness by believing or disbelieving in Him. The Ten Commandments represent the cornerstone in the messages of monotheism and its moral goals. Next to the belief in the One God and the worship of Him alone, come the consequences that this faith has for all human relations, starting with the family and going to all human beings whose lives, families and properties should be secure from any violation (Exodus 20. 3-15). In the next two verses (Exodus 20. 16-17) dealing with neighbors is stressed as a starting point in dealing with "others."

That faith in the One God has immediate consequences for inter-human relations was emphasized by Jesus when he answered a question about the great commandment in the law: Jesus said, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart and your mind." And the second is like unto it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets (Matt. 23.35-40; see also Mark 12.28-32, Luke 10.25-28). When Jesus was asked further to define "the neighbor," he gave the well-known parable of "the good Samaritan" who offered help and compassion to the person who needed it, regardless of any difference in faith (Luke 10.29-37).

Now, in an era of globalization, the whole world has become a close neighborhood. The Quran teaches the doing of good to the neighbor from your people, the neighbor who is a stranger, and the friend by your side whoever he/she may be (Quran 4:36). Caring for travelers who lost their way or their possessions is repeatedly stressed in the Quran. Even in war. those who leave the enemies' front to seek the Muslims' protection, have to be granted this protection, in addition to a safe passage to the destination they choose (Quran 9:6). Prisoners of war, who have to be set free as soon as possible, and all prisoners, should be taken care of in their various needs: physical, intellectual and spiritual-moral (Quran 47:4).

Such a genuine understanding, sympathy and cooperation ought to be the outcome of the belief in the All-Merciful, who offers His limitless mercy and grace to all of His creation (Quran 21:107). Since the Lord and Cherisher of all human being "makes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust," believers in Him ought to reflect God's mercy and grace in their relations with others: "For if you love them which love you, what reward have you? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you do more than others?" (Matt. 5.45-47).

The Quran endorses the moral commandments of the Torah (Quran 2:83), and describes the Torah as containing "guidance and light" (Quran 5:44), and as "clearly spelling out everything, and [thus providing] guidance and grace" (Quran 6:154). As for God's message revealed in the Gospel, the Quran states that in it "there is guidance and light, confirming the truth of the Torah that has preceded it, and [it was revealed] as a guidance and admonition unto the God-conscious" (Quran 5:46). The Quran urges the Jews to follow the Torah (Quran 5:43), as it urges the Christians to follow the Gospel (Quran 5:47), and has promised the good of this world's life if they do (Quran 5:66), in addition to the greatest reward of God in the life to come. As Jesus had emphasized in earlier times that he had not come to destroy the law of the Torah and the teaching of the prophets, but had come to fulfill them, so Muhammad emphasized that he was merely sent to fulfill what is virtuous. The Quran
spells out what this implies: "True virtue and good do not consist in turning you faces towards the east or the west, but truly virtuous and good-doer is the one who believes in God, the Last Day, the angels, the books and the prophets; and spends his substance-however much he [/she] himself [/herself] may cherish it upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer (who lost his/her way or possessions during a journey], and those who ask for help, and in freeing human beings from bondage, and keeps up the prayer, and renders the purifying [social welfare] dues (zakat); and [truly virtuous and good-doers are] those who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are pa-tient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril; it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they who are conscious of God" (Quran 2:177). Justice and kindness, al-adl wal-ihsan, concisely represent all virtues, as the Quran sometimes indicates (e.g. Quran 16:90). It
is significant that early Muslims sought shelter from persecution in Abyssinia with its Christian just king, and were granted asylum there. Ibn Taymiyya, the prominent Muslim jurist (d. 1328), maintained that God lets the just unbelieving power persevere and flourish, while He does not let the unjust Muslim power persevere and flourish.4

4. Human Differences: The Inborn Ones

The inborn differences are, in Quranic perspective, a fascinating variety whose components complement one another, and all humanity should work together to reach a true awareness of their various ethnic and cultural characteristics and to secure a peace based on justice. Both are fundamental for developing a constructive moral cooperation through the whole world (Quran 5:2). Muslim traders, preachers and travelers reached Scandinavia, the Volga basin, Africa, beyond the Sahara, and South, Southeast and East Asia. Muslims' contributions to the fields of travel, geography and cartography were distinguished. The Muslim assistance, especially that of the Arab navigator Ibn Majid, was invaluable for the Christian Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama (d. 1524) in his naval journey from Portugal to India around the Cape of Good Hope). Muslim scholars provided prominent works on all world religions known to them, not only the Abrahamic sister-religions. Al-Biruni (d. 1048)
studied Sanskrit in order to acquire and provide accurate information about the religious beliefs of India in his outstanding work on that subject.

Muslim contributions to human civilization were never limited to Muslims or their non-Muslim partners in Muslim countries. They were always offered to any student, scholar or beneficiary in the fields of physics and optics, chemistry, astronomy and observatories, anatomy, medicine and surgery, art and architecture, irrigation, agriculture and gardening, as well as philosophy and social and human studies. Jews and Christians in medieval Europe were welcomed in their frequent visits to Muslim capitals especially in Muslim Spain, where they sought to benefit from what Muslim scholars had to offer in these various fields. Muslim works translated into Latin enlightened Europe and paved the way for its Renaissance, and thus they paid back the previous Muslims' debt to Europe, when the Greek heritage was translated into Arabic. A constructive and fruitful interaction involved the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198) in debates with another outstanding Muslim thinker
and scholar al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), with the Jewish rabbi and philosopher Maimonides (d. 1204), and with the Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274).

5. Gender Differences

Men and women have the same human rights and responsibilities - "in charge of one another," as the Quran states-according to each individual's endowments and not to gender. Both men and women have their moral, social and political obligations: "enjoin the doing of what is right and forbid the doing of what is wrong" (Quran 9:71). Human dignity is conferred by God on all human beings, whatever their inborn and acquired differences may be, as we have seen above (Quran 17:70). This dignity should be secured and sanctioned by law and guarded by the state authorities. However, the Quran always emphasizes that kindness, forgive-ness, generosity, and magnanimity ought to go beyond literal justice: "and to forgo what is due to you is, more in accord with God-consciousness, and forget not [that you are to act with] grace towards one another" (Quran 2: 237), and, as stated elsewhere in the Quran, "good and evil cannot be equal [so] repel you [evil] with what is better, then the one
between whom and your-self was enmity [may then become] as if he [she] had [always] been a true close friend" (Quran 41:34). Unfortunately, as most Muslim peoples have be-come free from colonization, the call for "Islamic law" has been predominant, often at the expense of a deep concern for "Islamic morality."


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