Thursday, January 29, 2009

Relationship Between God and Human Beings

The relationship of the individual to God is the most significant dynamic in Islam. There is no disagreement that God is immutable, omnipresent, indivisible, and eternal. Belief in the oneness, completeness, and perfection of God is central to the Islamic faith...

The Qur'an emphasizes that human beings must submit to God and yield to God's commands, and it warns that people should not subjugate God to their whims. In other words, human beings should seek to understand God as God is, and not invent God as they would like God to be and then whimsically follow their own desires. There is no question in this relationship; God is the Superior and Supreme, and human beings must approach God with submission, humility, and gratitude.

This much is clear, and I believe that conservatives, puritans, and moderates would be in agreement. But what follows from this? What is the nature of the relationship between God and human beings, and what is the potential of that relationship? What does God want from human beings, and what is the ultimate objective behind submitting to God?

Puritans treat the relationship between God and humans as straightforward enough. Humans were created to submit to God through worship, they say. Ritual practice is the demonstrative proof of total submission to God, and so perfection of ritual practice is the ultimate objective. Importantly, since submission to God is hinged on correct ritual practice, submission is not possible unless one accepts Islam. The road to submission is available only through Islam and therefore, only by becoming Muslim does one gain the opportunity to submit to God.

In the puritan conception, the rules of submission are found in the sacred law (the Shari'a). Therefore, it is imperative that the Shari'a be precise and exact on most points. The Shari'a must set out the code for submission in precise and exact terms so that Muslims may obey it, and attain salvation. Through meticulous obedience, Muslims will avoid punishment in the Hereafter and will enter Heaven. On this point, the puritan conception is nearly mathematical. By performing acts of submission, Muslims earn good points, and by disobeying God they earn sins (or bad points). In the Final Day, God will total up the good points and the sins. Heaven or Hell is determined by the balance of points so that a single point can make the difference between Heaven and Hell. Puritans also dwell on Prophetic traditions that claim that in the Final Day people will be made to walk on a thin rope, and then, losing their balance, people will fall into either Hell or Heaven. Moderates, however, challenge the authenticity of these traditions, which make the fate of human beings in the Hereafter a by-product of mathematical equations or the end result of acrobatics performed on a thin rope. While moderates consider these traditions to be inconsistent with the Qur'an, and no more than historical fabrications, puritans accept the historical veracity of these traditions and read and understand them in a rigid and literal way. 

In the puritan paradigm, the relationship with God is formal and distant; it is strictly the relationship between a Superior and an inferior. God is to be feared and obeyed, and it is the fear of God's vengeance that defines true piety. As for God's mercy and compassion, the puritans believe that these two qualities have already been incorporated into the law. And since God's mercy and compassion are already contained in the law decreed by God, by definition the law must be considered compassionate and merciful. In the puritan view, it is not up to humans to reflect upon or think about the nature of God's mercy or compassion or the implications of this Divine mercy and compassion. All humans need to do is study the law, because the law is already the full embodiment of both God's mercy and compassion. It is as if God took whatever mercy and compassion that human beings might need in life, and put it all in the Divine law. Therefore, if one needs to find, experience, or feel this Divine law, human beings attain a full measure of God's mercy and compassion - through obedience to law, humans will necessarily enjoy God's mercy and compassion. 

The actual social impact that the law might have upon people is considered irrelevant. Although people might feel that the law is harsh or that its application results in social suffering, this perception is considered delusional. This is why, for instance, the Taliban of Afghanistan were oblivious to the social suffering caused by the laws that they enforced - since they believed that the law was Divine, there was no point in evaluating its actual impact upon the people they governed.

The approach of moderate Muslims to the the relationship with God is materially different in several aspects. Explaining the moderate approach must begin with the idea of trust between God and humanity. The Qur'an describes the moment of creation as the moment in which humanity was entrusted with a heavy responsibility. God gave humanity the blessing of rationality and the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. God made human beings God's agents or viceroys on the earth and entrusted them with the responsibility to civilize the land.

In the moderate conception, God is inherently and fundamentally moral. Puritans give God a whimsical quality - God is just, but justice is whatever God wills it to be. Similarly, God is merciful, but mercy is whatever God wills it to be. So, for instance, if God in the Final Day decides to damn all women or all Caucasians regardless of their actions, that would be just and good because God willed it.

For moderates, this would be impossible. God is moral and ethical, in the sense that God shares with human beings an objective standard for goodness, morality, and beauty. Civilizing the earth does not mean constructing buildings or paving roads. It means striving to spread on the earth the Divine attributes such as justice, mercy, compassion, goodness, and beauty. In doing so, human beings spread Divinity itself upon the earth. In contrast, corrupting the earth - spreading violence, hatred, vengeance, and ugliness - means failure in discharging one's obligations towards God. The Qur'an teaches that the act of destroying or spreading ruin on this earth is one of the gravest sins possible - fasad fi al-ard, which means to corrupt the earth by destroying the beauty of creation, is considered an ultimate act of blasphemy against God. Those who corrupt the earth by destroying lives, property, and nature are designated as mufsidun (corrupters and evildoers who, in effect, wage war against God by dismantling the very fabric of existence).

The earth was given to human beings in trust, and humans share the burden of establishing Godliness - in spreading attributes that constitute the essence of Godliness. The more the earth is permeated with justice, mercy, compassion, and beauty, the nearer the earth is to the Divine ideal. The more corruption permeates the earth, the further away the earth is from Godliness.

The purpose of the gift of rationality given to human beings is to investigate the meaning of Godliness and the nature of the opposite of Godliness - evil. God charges Muslims with a sacred and central obligation: the duty to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, and to bear witness upon humanity for God. Conservatives, puritans, and moderates do not dispute that this is a fundamental and basic obligation upon all Muslims. In the puritan interpretation, enjoining the good and forbidding the evil means applying the Divine law and then bearing witness on the Final Day that the majority of humanity refused  to submit to God. Moderates believe that the enjoinment of good and forbidding the evil imposes an obligation to investigate the nature of good and evil, and by necessity investigating the nature of Godliness and the absence of it. The enjoinment of good is part and parcel of the duty to civilize the earth and resist the spread of corruption. But the enjoinment of good and avoidance of evil is an ongoing, everlasting obligation to investigate the nature of Godliness and to attempt to make this Godliness, as much as possible, a part of the reality on earth. Human beings will never be able to reach the perfection of Divinity, but they must relentlessly seek to fulfill the attributes of Godliness. To bear witness upon humanity means that Muslims have an added obligation and a greater burden. Muslims must set an example for the rest of humanity in their diligence and persistence in seeking the perfection of Divinity. If Muslims fail in setting an example for humanity in their fidelity to justice, mercy, compassion, and beauty, then Muslims have failed God.

In moderate thought, God is too great to be embodied in a code of law. The law helps in the quest for Godliness, but Godliness cannot be equated to the law. The ultimate objective of the law is to achieve goodness, which includes justice, mercy, and compassion, and the technicalities of the law cannot be allowed to subvert the objectives of the law. Therefore, if the application of the law produces injustice, suffering, and misery, this means that the law is not serving its purposes. In this situation, the law is corrupting the earth instead of civilizing it. In short, if the application of the law results in injustice, suffering, or misery, then the law must be reinterpreted, suspended, or reconstructed, depending on the law in question.

Moderates agree with puritans that submission to God is the pivotal obligation of human beings, individually and collectively. Only by submitting the self to God can a human being liberate himself/herself from his or her base and whimsical desires. Submission to God means refusing to submit to any other person or thing. For a Muslim to be dominated or subjugated by a human oppressor is fundamentally at odds with the duty of submission to God. Human free will cannot be surrendered or submitted to anyone but God, and a Muslim is commanded to accept no master other than God.

However, the moderate conception of submission is different from the puritan notion in very important respects. Moderates differentiate between levels of submission. It is possible to obey God without submitting to God. It is possible to obey God's commands while remaining narcissistically self-centred and selfish. In other words, it is possible to obey God, for whatever reason, while caring little about God, and while being entirely motivated by self-interest and without developing any emotional attachment toward God and without bothering to invest the time and effort in coming to know God by reflecting upon God's attributes, which are reflected in God's wondrous creation. Obeying God out of fear of punishment or out of a desire for a reward keeps one vested in the paradigm of self-interest and the artificiality of the mundane physical world. If this constitutes submission to God, it is formalistic and superficial because it does not attempt or even seek to internalize the sublime nature of the Divine. To submit to the Divine in a meaningful and genuine way is to elevate oneself to the transcendental and the sublime, to overcome the artificial physical world and to seek union with the ultimate Beauty. As one struggles to purify and cleanse oneself - as one engages in what is known as the inner jihad (jihad al-nafs), and struggles to know oneself and know God, one is able to achieve higher levels of submission.

... The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadl

1 comment:

Al-Majnun said...


really reminds me of how i miss u blogging.

blog more la! travel tu travel jugak, but blog more also la!

thinking of you, shaykh :)