Surah Jonah 10:19
Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
Wa ma kanan-nasu
Wa lawla kalimatun-sabaqat
mir-Rabbika laqudiya baynahum fima fihi yakhtalifun.
Mankind was but one community, then they differed. And if not for a Word that had preceded from thy Lord, judgment would have been made between them concerning that wherein they differed.
Surah al-Ma’idah 5:48
And We have sent down unto thee the Book in truth, confirming the Book that came before it, and as a protector over it. So judge between them in accordance with what God has sent down, and follow not their caprices away from the truth that has come to thee. For each among you We have appointed a law and a way. And had God willed, He would have made you one community, but [He willed otherwise], that He might try you in that which He has given you. So vie with one another in good deeds. Unto God shall be your return all together, and He will inform you of that wherein you differ.
The ayat before and after ayah 48 in Surah al-Maa’idah show that it is referring specifically to the People of the Book and some differences between, Jews, Christians and the new revelations of Prophet Mohammed, pbuh. The Muslims are instructed not to follow those of the teachings of earlier religions that contradict what is being revealed to the Prophet. Ayat 49-53 specifically target hypocrites as the worst transgressors – those who claim to follow the new faith but then turn away from God’s commandments. A careful reading shows that the Muslims have not been advised in these passages to reject those who follow other faiths. They have been advised not to follow them, especially in those ways in which they have deviated from God’s will, and not to be hypocritical – claiming allegiance to one faith and then supporting the other. In other words, follow your faith in One God, honestly and sincerely.
The admonition to follow the straight path and not deviate from belief in Allah is probably the most repeated concept in the Quran. We read it over and over, in almost every surah. This is understood by most Muslims to mean that Islam is the only true faith. I want to explore that idea today, especially in light of what that understanding means for us as Muslims in a multi-religious, multi-cultural society. Quran acknowledges in Ayah 5:48 and Ayah 10:19 that diversity is a human trait, and that diverse communities can learn from each other when competing to create a greater good. These days, I believe we need to apply that same approach to dealing with differences between Muslims themselves, and between Muslims and the broader society.
I recently heard about a film that was made several years ago called The Mosque in Morgantown. It’s about the fight between the journalist and activist Asra Nomani and the mosque community in her hometown in West Virginia. In the trailer for the film, Nomani talks about going back to Morgantown when she left Pakistan after the execution of her friend and fellow journalist, Daniel Pearl. “When I heard the sermons of hate and intolerance in my hometown mosque,” she said, “I knew that I couldn’t just watch silently. I was gonna stand up and fight.” So she wrote articles and tried to pray in the men’s prayer space.
Those in the mosque community did not see her activism as a noble cause. Mosque leaders said “Asra’s articles didn’t give an accurate depiction of what’s going on in Morgantown. It made everyone look bad.” They accused her of comparing them to the people who killed Daniel Pearl, which they categorically rejected. One hijabi woman said “She wants to bend the rules of Islam her way. You can’t do that – these are not human rules.”
If God says in Quran that if He had so willed, He would have made us one community, but He willed otherwise, and we should compete in doing good deeds –why are Muslims so adverse to difference?
There are a couple of Hadith that are well known to most Muslims:
First, all of the principal Hadith scholars narrated the report that the Prophet told his followers, at the end of his life, that if they follow Quran and Sunnah, they will never go astray.
Second, a hadith from Al-Tirmidhi:
Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) said: There will befall my Ummah exactly (all those) evils which befell the people of Isra'il… and if the people of Isra'il were fragmented into seventy-two sects my Ummah will be fragmented into seventy-three sects. All of them will be in Hell Fire except one sect. They (the Companions) said: Allah's Messenger, which is that? Whereupon he said: It is one to which I and my companions belong.
These transmissions have left a legacy of rejection of diversity of opinion in Islam. Muslims believe that if they just follow Quran and Sunnah, they will not go wrong.
But the fact is, as soon as the Prophet left this life, his followers, those who had lived with him and been the direct recipients of his message for 23 years, immediately disagreed with each other about the meanings of Quran and Sunnah. And the disagreements have not stopped since. Orthodox interpretations have been imposed, sometimes to the death of those who differed. But there have always been disagreements over what is meant by the words of Quran and the legacy of the Prophet.
And now we Muslims who are living as minorities in democratic countries find ourselves surrounded by diversity on every front, in societies where the idea of imposing any kind of orthodoxy is anathema to the very fabric of the social order. And the freedom guaranteed by that social order is the same freedom that protects our right to be here practicing our faith. We must make our peace with diversity.
If we look to God’s natural world for instruction, evolution shows us that species diversification is essential for survival, and species that do not adapt to changes in their environment eventually die out. If we look to human history, we see that autocratic regimes eventually fall. Intransigent ideas do not survive.
So I gave myself the task of looking for illumination from Quran. Are there any messages to guide us in a sea of diversity?
And so I research. And it is not easy, God knows. In fact, when I hear atheists critiquing religion – which is common on our radio and TV these days, I have to admit, I sometimes wish I could join them. Life would be seemingly so much simpler if I didn’t have to keep searching for meaning in inadequate translations of a text written for people in a 7th century tribal culture – just let it go. How tempting! But for better or for worse – and of course I believe it’s for better – I can’t let go of my belief in God. I can’t imagine life without it. I believed in God before I came to Islam. In fact, my belief in God brought me to Islam, and that belief is what keeps me devoted to the project of finding meaning for myself in this faith. I will make mistakes, and God forgive my many shortcomings, but not giving up on that up on that project is my way of submitting to God’s will for my life.
And so I continue to read, and as always, I find meaning that resonates.
The first concept that I find most applicable to the notion of diversity in interpretation and practice of faith is the idea of the nature of what God is in the first place. Who or What is Allah, that we all worship and follow? As we all know, when one of the companions asked this question of the Prophet, Surah Ikhlas was revealed:
Surah 112: Al-Ikhlas
Qul Huwal-lahu Ahad
Say: He is the One God:
God the Eternal – the Uncaused Cause of All that Exists.
Lam yalid wa lam yulad.
He begets not, and neither is He begotten;
Wa lam yakul-lahu kufuwan Ahad.
And there is nothing that could be compared with Him.
This concept of God was so foreign to the Arabs – used to worshipping idols created in the image of human beings - that it had to be repeated to them over and over and over in revelation. God is beyond all human understanding – you must accept that, and trust that notion to the point of never worshipping anything other than that which can never be fully understood. So no human being – no group – no community – no religion – can claim to have a complete understanding of God. Those that do are the ones who are truly lost, and the ones we should truly fear. We can learn and grow from each other’s ideas, and we should, knowing that we are all inadequate before God. Search for understanding from every source – even the atheist might have something I can learn from - but trust completely ONLY in the Creator Who cannot be known.
Surah Maryam 19:69-70:
Thumma lananzi anna min-kulli shi’atin
ayyuhum ashaddu alar-Rahmani itiyya. 69
Thumma laNahu a’lamu bil-ladhina hum awla biha silliyya. 70
Then indeed We shall pluck out from every group whosoever among them was most insolent toward the Compassionate.
Then We shall surely know those who most deserve to burn therein.
We should we open to finding understanding from any source, but don’t we need guideposts to help us discriminate among them? Well, Quran gives us a big one. Here is another reference:
Surah al-Ra’d The Thunder 13:30
Thus have We sent thee [Prophet Mohammed] unto a community before whom other communities have passed away, that thou mayest recite unto them that which We have revealed unto thee; yet they disbelieve in the Compassionate. Say, “He is my Lord, there is no god but He. In Him do I trust and unto Him do I turn.”
God is Rahman - the Compassionate, and those who reject Compassion are truly lost.
Think about it – we begin every recitation of the Quran, every invocation to God with those words – Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim – in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. Is it possible that compassion is the key to dealing with diversity? Where is the compassion in the story of the Morgantown mosque? Neither Asra nor the hijabi woman seemed to have much compassion for the other. Of course, in that story I identify more with Asra Nomani than with the woman in hijab. I assume that the hijabi woman would have no compassion for me. But when I read those ayat from Surah Maryam and Surah Ar-Rad, I had to ask myself, how compassionate am I towards her? I am so used to feeling marginalized because of my commitment to equal treatment for women and men, I immediately assume that those who disagree with me would have no compassion toward me. How presumptuous is that. By making that assumption, I approach the other defensively, which naturally elicits a defensive response, regardless of how the person might have responded to me had I felt less threatened. I should have confidence in the value of my own position, while trying to understand the other.
And as it happened, I was given the chance to do that last weekend. We were at the Turkish American Center, praying Isha prayer in the mosque. I had seen that prayer space before, open and beautiful. But this time there was a screen up, separating men from women, with women, of course, in the rear. At first I felt my usual resentment. But as I prayed, I allowed myself to appreciate the separation, the seclusion from the men, the feeling of being special and protected. I understood the other point of view, even while appreciating the value of my own preference of having men and women at the same level, worshipping God together. I don’t have to devalue my own perspective to see the value in the other. That, I hope, is a start in the direction of compassion – for myself and those who are different from me.
Surah Al Hujurat 49:10-13
The believers are but brothers; so make peace between your brethren, and reverence God, that haply you may receive mercy.
O you who believe! Let not one people deride another; it may be that they are better than them. Nor let women deride other women; it may be that they are better than them. And do not defame yourselves or insult one another with nicknames; how evil is the iniquitous name after having believed! And whosoever does not repent, they are the wrongdoers.
O you who believe! Shun much conjecture. Indeed, some conjecture is a sin. And do not spy upon one another, nor backbite one another. Would any of you desire to eat the dead flesh of his brother? You would abhor it. And reverence God. Truly God is Relenting, Merciful.
O mankind! Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another. Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you. Truly God is Knowing, Aware.
As we try to understand what is happening to and through Islam in our world today, we must encourage creativity – new ideas – never losing sight of our heritage, but allowing all ideas to flourish in the search for answers moving forward. This is unity in diversity – to be strong enough to embrace difference, indeed to celebrate difference and - this is the hardest part – to do so with compassion.
Surah al-Hajj 22:77-78
O you who believe! Bow, prostrate, and worship your Lord! And do good, that haply you may prosper.
And strive for God as He should be striven for. He has chosen for you – and has placed no hardship for you in the religion – the creed of your father Abraham. He named you muslims aforetime, and herein, that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and that you may be witnesses for mankind. So perform the prayer and give the alms, and hold fast to God. He is your Master. How excellent a Master, and how excellent a Helper!
Fa ‘aqimus-Salata wa atus-Zakata wa tasimu billihi
Huwa Mawlakum fani mal-Mawla wa ni’man Nasir. 78
Sadaq Allahu Al-Azeem.