ON A QUR'ANIC APPROACH TO ECOLOGY
Thomas Michel, S.J.
When a Christian reads the Qur'an or the Sacred Scriptures of another religion, our primary goal must be to understand . We approach such a study to be enriched by the wisdom that God has generously planted, at all times and places, in all religions and cultures. The early Fathers of the Christian community were well aware that the divine wisdom that God had so bountifully distributed among men and women should be understood as the effect of the work of God's own Spirit. In a beautiful observation attributed to St. Ambrose, it is said: “Every truth, by whomever it is expressed, comes from the Holy Spirit” [ omne verum, a quocumque dicatur, a Spiritu Sancto est ].
In our own times, Pope John Paul II has encouraged Christians to study and learn from the wisdom that has been granted to others. Already in 1979, in the first year after he became Pope, he said, “The Christian ought to have great interest to observe truly religious peoples and to read and learn the testimonies of their wisdom, to confront the direct proofs of their faith, to the point of recalling the words of Jesus, ‘Not even in Israel have I found such faith.'” If this principle is valid in general, how much more is it applicable to the followers of Islam, our fellow believers who trace their origins in faith to Abraham, who like us adore the one God, and whose commitment to conform themselves to God's supreme will is so similar to our own.
For this reason, when Christians encounter passages of the Qur'an which speak of the relationship of humans to the natural world, we must ask ourselves: “What is the truth that God can teach to me and to my Christian community through these passages?” Sometimes the answer will be a reaffirmation of what we have already learned by way of our own Christian tradition. At other times, we will find expressions which, while not denied by our own Scriptures, have not been so explicitly stated or so thoroughly developed as they have been in the Qur'an. On still other occasions, we will discover new visions and approaches to the natural world in which we can discern the movement of the Spirit of Truth and which we can profitably integrate into our own ways of thinking and acting. In this brief article, I would like to offer insights from the Qur'an which can serve as theological bases for an Islamic approach to questions of ecology.
The underlying principle which underlies the approach of the Qur'an to the natural world is the serious nature of the divine project. The Qur'an states: “We have not created the heaven and the earth and all that is in them in jest. If we had wanted to look for a pastime, we would have been able to find it in Ourself” (21: 16-17). Similarly, “And we have not created the heavens and the earths and all that is in them as a game. We have created them for no other purpose but the truth; but most people do not know this” (44:38-39).
The earth, sea, atmosphere and all the creatures that they contain are not the result of some divine sport, nor are they the casual result of processes begun and left to follow their own destiny by an irresponsible creator. The approach of the Qur'an to nature is always theological. God has carried out all this creative activity and continues to act in this world for a reason. God's way of acting in nature is purposeful, part of a great, eternal design. Therefore, nature must never be treated lightly, for it possesses a seriousness that derives from the end to which God has destined it at the beginning and which will continue on until the Day of Judgment.
This purpose can be expressed as “to give glory to God,” an attitude well known by the Psalmist. As the Qur'an puts it: “The seven heavens and the earth and all that is in them praise Him and nothing exists which does not celebrate His glory. But you do not understand their praise” (17: 44). And again, “Haven't you seen that God is glorified by everything that is in the heavens and on earth, and by the birds in their flight? He knows the prayer of each and their glorification, and God is aware of all that they do” (24: 41; see also 57: 1; 59: 1; 61: 1).
Nature is “muslim” because it carries out the will of God, it submits to God's commands, it acts within the limits that God has set for it. The birds, for example, give glory to God simply by being what they are, in this way they fulfill the purpose for which they were created. In the whole universe, it is only humankind that can choose freely either to obey and submit itself to the commands of God or to refuse to believe, to be ungrateful and to act corruptly.
In an enigmatic verse, the Qur'an states: “Look, We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to carry it and were afraid of it. But man accepted [the challenge]. He has indeed been unjust and ignorant” (33:72). The Qur'anic scholars offer various interpretations concerning the “trust” which the heavens, earth and mountain were afraid to bear, but that humankind accepted. Some say that the trust refused by the natural world consisted in accepting the challenge to give a free response of submission and service to God. Others hold that the trust was the responsibility to establish a moral social order on earth. Still others claim that the trust implies a commitment to guide and administer the universe in the manner of a responsible steward. The Qur'an recognizes that even if humankind has often failed to perform properly this difficult task, the commitment to respond freely to the challenge of obeying God's commands constitutes the true greatness of humanity.
Whatever the proper interpretation of the above-mentioned verse, the relation between humanity and nature is clearly stated. The natural world must perforce be muslim . It must submit to God's designs. It must give glory to the Creator. Only humankind is able to accept or to refuse the commands of God, to care for or to destroy nature, to act in a responsible and moral manner or else to “pollute the earth.” In this way, humans give glory to God not because they are forced to do so, but through wisdom and by the use of free will to show their privileged place in nature by taking up the trust that has been granted them by God. This very freedom of response also means that man is also capable of misusing this trust, of dissipating his primacy through greed and injustice.
It is clear from the Qur'an that humankind will one day have to answer for its sins against the natural world. In a powerful poetic passage the Qur'an invokes the Day of Judgment and presents the image of the natural universe rising up to accuse humankind of its crimes:
“When the earth shall quake violently,
and the earth shall bring forth its burdens,
and man shall say: ‘What is happening to it,'
on that day, it shall tell its stories” (99: 1-4).
How many tales, how many complaints covering so many centuries, will the earth will be able to tell, of contaminated seas, of polluted air, of lands made desolate through overproduction and wartime destruction, of forests stripped, of animals killed unnecessarily for sport or for their furs, hides and tusks, of whole races of animals and plants wiped out through the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the dumping of industrial wastes, of its beauties disfigured and its treasures sacked, all in the name of greed masquerading as progress? The point is that humans will not go unpunished for the sins and misdeeds which they have committed against the earth. The Qur'an views nature as a creature of God and as such it has an inalienable dignity which should be respected. Nature is not a neutral field for those who possess the greatest power, capabilities and resources to exploit it according to the principle of “first come first served.” It is a possession entrusted by God to be used, as a good administrator ought to do, for the good of all.
While the Qur'an affirms the duty of man to treat nature with care and respect, it does not propose a romantic nostalgia that would prohibit the proper use and development of natural resources. Nature is seen as a blessing of God for humankind and as such ought to be utilized for the needs and happiness of the human family. In the Surat al-Nahl, the Chapter of the Bee (16), which could be called the Sura of Nature, humankind is taught that nature is a gift which the loving Creator has given to us for our benefit and pleasure:And God has created domestic animals for you .
From them you get warm clothes, you can find many uses for them,
and you can eat them.
And what a beautiful thing it is to bring them home in the evening
and to drive them out to pasture in the morning.
They carry your merchandise to lands which
otherwise you could not reach except with great difficulty.
Your Lord is really Gentle and Merciful.
And God has made for you horses, mules, and donkeys
so that you can ride them and decorate them,
and God is creating other things you don't know about. (16: 5-8).
It is God who sends down rain from heaven,
which you can drink
and which causes the plants to grow, where your animals can pasture.
With rain, God causes grain, olives, date palms, and grapes to grow
and all kinds of fruits for you .
There are truly signs in this
for those who think about them. (16: 10-11)
And God has subjected to you the night and the day.Think of the various colors that God has spread over the earth for you .
The sun and the moon and the stars
are also subject to you by God's command.
In this there are signs
for those who can use their minds.
Here too are signs
for those who remember to think about them. And God has subjected the sea to you,
so that you can eat fresh fish,
and gather shells and other ornaments to wear.
You can see ships plowing across its waves,
so that you can go seek God's bounties
and so that you give thanks. And God has set up firm mountains on earth
so that it does not slip away underneath you,
and rivers, paths, and landmarks so you do not get lost;
also by the stars you can find your way (16: 12-16).
This Qur'anic passage outlines some of the many blessings which God bestows on humankind in the natural world: animals, rain, night and day, the sun, moon and stars, the sea and all it contains, mountains, rivers and landmarks. The passage emphasizes repeatedly that God has created all these things for you (16: 5, 8, 11, 13). They are gifts of the beneficent God intended not only for mankind's survival (food, drink, shelter, clothing) and convenience (ships and landmarks for travel and commerce), but also simply to give humans aesthetic pleasure and admiration of God's greatness. “What a beautiful thing it is to bring them [cattle and flocks] home in the evening, and to drive them out to pasture in the morning.” Or, “Think of the various colors that God has spread over the earth for you.” In nature, God has provided much of what makes life good and pleasurable and beautiful, something to be truly grateful for.
Moreover, there is a message for humans in all God's gifts. The passage constantly underlines that nature's gifts all contain “signs” for those who are willing to take the time to think about them, for those who are ready to reflect on what this magnificent world is for. Nature is not simply something “given,” raw material to be selfishly used any way one wants. Nature is rather a textbook by which men and women can come to know God better and to know their own relationship to the Creator of all things.
The theme of nature as teacher runs through the Qur'an. Humans are taught not to take for granted the wonders of the natural universe, but rather to become aware of them, to reflect upon them, and to come to know God through them.
“Have you thought about your agriculture? Do you produce it yourselves, or are We the sower? Had we wished, we could have reduced it all to rubble, and then you would have been wondering” (56: 63-65).
“Have you seen the water you drink? Were you the ones who brought it down from the clouds, or did We send it down? Had We wished, We could have made it bitter. If only you would give thanks” (56: 68-70).
Elsewhere the Qur'an invites humans to reflect on fire, trees, on the alternation of day and night, on the stability of river beds, on landmarks in the desert, on the fixed stars, on bees and the mystery of honey, on the rebirth of the earth after rains and on the movement of winds. The list could be extended indefinitely, but these few examples must suffice to show that nature is full of lessons for those who are ready to learn from it.
The first lesson we can learn from nature is the unlimited creative power and the Lordship of God who can accomplish wonders impossible for humans. The progress of scientific knowledge in modern times merely underlines the insignificance and weakness of humans before the great processes of nature. In an assertion reminiscent of God's message to Job in the Bible, the Qur'an states that “God is creating other things you don't know about” (16: 8.)
A second lesson is the mercy and love of God for humankind. The good things brought by nature ought to bring people to an awareness of the goodness and generosity of God. The proper response to God for the things revealed in nature is that of faith and gratitude.
A third lesson sought by nature to those who reflect on it is that the recurrent cycle of nature and its order should lead us to be conscious of God as a proficient governor who “measures” the capacities and the limits of everything and governs the universe in an orderly fashion. The order of nature is not haphazard, but an order that reflects the wise reliability of its Creator. The Qur'an explains this as follows:
“The sun moves to its proper place - this is the decree of the Almighty, the All-Knowing. And the moon, We have determined its phases, until it returns like a curved staff. The sun is not going to overtake the moon, nor the night outstrip the day, for each is floating in its own orbit” (36: 38-40).
According to the Qur'an, nature indicates a wise, good, powerful, stable God, and these indications are evident to anyone who seeks to understand them. However, many people, because of a short-sighted preoccupation with immediate causes and temporary phenomena, ignore the message of nature and live as if they themselves were the ultimate goal, or as if there were no ultimate purpose in life. So long as life proceeds smoothly and nature acts as an obedient servant, they lose interest in seeking the Lord of nature and His will. In times of crisis they return to God, but when the crisis situation is resolved, then fall back into their egocentric indifference. The Qur'an describes this human phenomenon as follows:
“It is He who enables your journey on land and on sea. When you are in ships which sail forward driven by a fair wind, they rejoice, but when a stormy wind comes upon them and waves surge over them from every side, they think that they are being overwhelmed. At that time, they call upon God, sincerely professing submission to Him: ‘If you save us from this, we shall be truly thankful.' But when He saves them, they resort to acting rebelliously on earth” (10: 22-23).
For humans, true wisdom is awareness and gratitude to the Lord of nature in times of safety and prosperity, before calamity occurs.
The Qur'an teaches that nature is itself is one of the great miracles of God. Some people tend to define a miracle as “that which goes beyond the bonds of nature. The Qur'an teaches that God is well capable of breaking the bonds of nature and states that God's suspensions of natural laws are a proof of God's power. However, the real miracle of nature is not found in the interruption of the natural order but rather in the regularity which God has imposed upon it. The predictability of natural laws (sunrise and sunset, the movements of the stars, the recurrence of rainy seasons, the birth of animals, the very fact that the earth does not explode, sink, go spinning off into space, or that the whole universe does not self-destruct) are all miracles that point to a continual sovereign order established by God. The progress of natural sciences such as geology, meteorology, astronomy, physics, oceanography, agriculture, zoology, and botany ought to lead humanity to a deeper awareness of the miraculous regularity and logic of nature.
Rather than guiding people to a delusion of self-sufficiency, science ought to lead the believer to think about how much of the miraculous is surrounding him. This demands that people study the natural sciences non only to learn about quantitative and spacial relationships, but to strive for true discernment and understanding a profound perception that it is the divine hand that guides the processes of nature in accord with the purposes that God has established for it.
It is only God, the source and governor of the marvelous regularity of nature, who is able to suppress or suspend natural laws. In fact, it is God's subversion of the natural order that will be the dramatic sign of the imminent Day of Judgment. The Qur'an foresees the eschatological Day of Chaos, when the laws of nature will be suspended and humankind will be called upon to answer for how they have lived. The Qur'an announces:
When the sun will be overturned,
and when the stars fall,
and when the mountains will be set in motion,
and when the great camels with their young will be abandoned,
and when the wild animals will all take refuge together,
and when the sea rises...
and when heaven will be torn away,
and when the Fire will be lit
and when the Garden will be brought near,
at that time, every soul will know what has been prepared for it (81: 1-6, 11-14).
This and similar descriptions of the final chaos serve as an important warning concerning the way in which we live on this earth. A day is coming when we will all have to give an account of our stewardship over the natural world. We can return with profit to the telling passage in the Qur'an:“On that day, [the earth] will tell its stories,
because your Lord will inspire it.
On that day, humankind will come forth in small groups to show its deeds.
Whoever has committed even a gram of goodness will see it then, and whoever has done even a gram of evil will see it at that time” (99: 4-8.).
These elements of a Qur'anic approach to ecology arouse many echoes in the Christian reader. When a Christian reads the Qur'anic teaching on nature, it is like going to one's storehouse and finding things old and new. Some images are new and vivid and invite the reader to a renewed examination of our indifference or irreverence toward the divine message found n nature. Other emphases can awaken in the heart of the Christian reader a sense of respect due to God's creation and a greater awareness of the seriousness of our sins against the natural world.
The Qur'anic message reinforces the awareness that, in many important aspects, Christians and Muslims are united in the conviction that only God ought to be worshiped and that God's will ought to reign sovereign in our lives. The central element of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospel, the Reign of God, that God reigns and is the supreme ruler of the universe - is not a concept foreign to the spirit and the teaching of the Qur'an.
At their first continental meeting in Manila in 1970, the Catholic bishops of Asia noted three elements of Asian realities that form the societal context in which Christian faith must be lived. They are the undeniable facts that 1) Christians in Asia live amidst millions of committed followers of other religions, 2) that they belong to ancient and rich Asian cultures of which they are heirs and stewards, and 3) that they live in societies in which crushing, oppressive poverty is still the daily lot of the majority of people. The mission of the churches in Asia, they proposed, must be the task of dialogue of the Gospel - and thus the people of the Gospel - with these three realities, that is, the triple task of interreligious dialogue, intercultural dialogue, and dialogue with the poor and marginalized.
In the decades that have passed since this declaration, the triple dialogue has been reiterated and elaborated in many forms by the Catholic Churches in Asia and by our sister Churches of the Christian Conference of Asia. This awareness has engendered Asian theological movements such as dalit theology and minjung theology, and specifically Asian forms feminist theology and indigenous theology. In recent decades, new elements of the Asian context have come to the forefront of our consciousness, most notably the fact that Asian societies are part of a globalizing market economy, made possible by the technological and informational revolution, rooted in liberal philosophical values of modernity, and promoting a secularizing process that touches the life of every religious group and culture and every suffering individual. Globalization is a dynamic process that appears to be even stronger than individual nation states and national cultures, and adds a fourth element to the “triple dialogue.” This reality challenges Christians to involve themselves in dialogue with the “movers and shakers” of modern Asia if more just, humane and harmonious societies are to be built.
My personal involvement in this task of the churches in Asia, a region where I was not born but which I consider my home for the past thirty years, is in the area of dialogue with Muslims. It was in Asia, specifically in this city of Yogyakarta, that I first came to know Muslims in 1969, and it is in Asia where I have sought to discover the meaning and purpose of Christian-Muslim dialogue in subsequent years. Although the results have not always been encouraging, my experience has strongly convinced me that this task must be continued.
One thing that I have learned in the course of time is that interreligious dialogue or, more specifically, Muslim-Christian dialogue, must never be separated from dialogue with cultures and, even more importantly, from the centrality of ongoing dialogue with the poor. Interreligious dialogue can too easily become an elitist exercise in which scholars and religious leaders create among themselves a clubby brotherhood - and I use the gender-specific term intentionally - across religious lines to perpetuate and, in the worst cases, justify the economic and social status quo . Too often in interreligious gatherings, the daily concerns of the poor are simply ignored, as if they were non-existent, or mentioned and passed over as though the indignities and injustices they experience daily were irrelevant or even an embarrassment in the context of the lofty religious concepts and ideals expressed. The excluded voices of the poor, of women, of indigenous peoples, of children and - dare I say it? - of the unborn, undermine the whole effort of dialogue and prevent it from becoming an effective means of social transformation.
I am convinced that what is needed in Asia today is an interreligious dialogue that begins from the needs and concerns of the poor and is oriented towards true human liberation. In a world where decisions that affect the lives of millions are made on the bases of market policy, spreadsheets, Realpolitik and demographic projections, religious groups are challenged to provide an alternative reading of social situations by drawing upon the liberative elements of our specific traditions. It is either in this area where the religious traditions in Asia can make a unique and much needed contribution to the transformation of society, or nowhere. If we “fumble the ball” in failing to voice the genuine longing of the masses of the Asian poor for dignity and justice, we simply contribute to the malaise of values that secular modernity inexorably propagates.
Turning specifically to dialogue with Muslims, Christians must not hesitate to draw upon the strong prophetic tradition of our Scriptures, exemplified by Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and Epistle of James, upon the sapiential insights of Job and Qoheleth the Preacher, and most of all, upon the lessons of our Master's Sermon on the Mount, his parables of unjust stewards, foolish empire-builders, the rich man in Hell and his impervious brothers, as well as Jesus' observations on poor widows and repentant women, and his example of sharing food with lawbreakers and unwashed masses.
I have rarely heard - and must confess, to my shame, that I have too rarely expressed - such central elements of the Christian tradition in situations of Christian-Muslim dialogue. One wonders why we are more inclined to formulate Jesus' relationship to the Father or God's Trinitarian life than to deal with basic Gospel teaching concerning the majority of our neighbors who daily “hunger and thirst for justice,” whose demands, our Master teaches, will be satisfied. Part of the reason, obviously, is that most of those who engage in formal dialogue are well-fed, well-housed, well-educated, and well-placed in society.
Different elements of the Gospel have personal impact on different people, depending on their particular situation of life. Let me give an example from my early experience here in Yogyakarta. When I first came to Yogya in 1969, I was approached to celebrate the Eucharist with the political prisoners who were detained here in the city. Some were in the prison of the benteng , but there were still in those first years of the New Order so many prisoners that makeshift prisons, three for men and one for women, were set up in police stations and army barracks in various places. (One was on Jalan Solo, walking distance from where we are now meeting.) The Catholics were few, but they wanted Mass, so taking turns with others on the team, I went twice-weekly to preside at the worship.
There were no restrictions on who attended, but in fact almost all the prisoners - nominal or committed communists, sympathizers, or members of left-leaning trade unions - took part. I believe that the vast majority of the prisoners, nominally Muslims, did not carry out the practice of any organized religion. They had probably never encountered any Scripture reading or passage of the Qur'an. The religiosity of most centered about meditative exercises of Javanese mysticism. Why did the non-Christians take part? I think that the reasons were varied: a mixture of curiosity, boredom (there was nothing else to do), and a need for spiritual nourishment at a moment in their lives when they had lost everything - homes, families, livelihood, and hope for the future.
As I said, for most, it was the first time they had ever heard any passage of the Gospel. Over and over, I had an amazing experience while reading the Gospel of the day. It was as if dropped out of the scene, and God was directly communicating with these prisoners through Christ's words at a moment of extreme crisis in their lives. One day, for example, the reading was a passage from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows,” and “Set your heart first on God's kingdom and justice and all these things will be given to you.” On hearing these words, a prisoner spontaneously burst out in heaves of emotion, followed by another and another. I had heard those verses many times since my childhood and found them comforting, but they never triggered in me the deep emotional response that they did in these men.
Through Christ, God was telling them that, despite the apparently hopeless situation they were in, they were precious in God's sight and that God would one day bring also to them a time of liberation. The situation reminded me of Ezekiel's preaching to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, whose situation was not very different from these prisoners. In Ezekiel's message, the sharp sword of the prophetic message became the comforting and hope-filled words of a tender mother.
These are the kinds of things that I should and do talk about with Muslims. These are the aspects of our faith that we need to be in communication about. Muslims need to know about the liberating aspects of Christian faith, and it is just as important that we Christians learn about the elements of liberation and transformation that the Muslim poor, who are far more numerous in Asia than Christians, find grounds in their Islamic faith for strength and hope and consolation. We need to discover the strong prophetic tradition carried on in the Qur'an and the elements of liberation found in the pillars of Islam and in the shari'a , the Islamic way of life.
It is a sign of our ignorance that many Christians respond, “I didn't know that there were liberating elements in Islam. I thought Islam was oppressive of the poor, of women, of sinners. I have the impression that Islam is impassive and fatalistic in the face of injustice and wrongdoing.” Yet 30 minutes in any Muslim bookshop will reveal titles such as Transformative Islam , Islam: the Religion of Justice , and Islam and the Liberation of Women . It is sobering, but small consolation, to remember that Muslims are usually no better informed about our faith than we are about theirs and are normally surprised to find that Christianity has any concern for human liberation. They often regard Christian faith mainly as a justification for power and wealth.
Christians also need to learn how to listen to Muslims, especially to poor Muslims. They often frame and phrase their hopes and struggles in different terms from ours. All over Asia, Muslim scholars and activists are rediscovering the liberative elements in the Qur'anic teaching and in the hadith reports that stem from Muhammad. In the past, Muslim efforts to elucidate the social message of Islam were often hampered by a literalism that made it difficult to apply Qur'anic passages to the very different social and economic structures of today. However, what we find in writings of Muslim scholars like Ali Asghar Engineer of India, Chandra Muzaffar of Malaysia, Muslim Abdurrahman of Indonesia, or the feminist activist Mucha Shim Quiling of the Philippines, and what might be called the cooperative projects of groups like the Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN), may be properly described as attempts to draw out the societal and economic implications of the Islamic sources and to implement them in modern Asian societies.
An obstacle that prevents Christians from appreciating and entering into dialogue with Muslims on elements of liberation is the sad fact that in several parts of Asia, Christians and Muslims are locked in confessional conflicts in which religious affiliation, while not the cause of the conflict, plays an important role in pitting one against the other. This unhappy situation too often leads us to see “the Muslim” as a threat to our well-being or even the enemy to be defeated, just as it leads Muslims to regard Christians as inimical to Islam and Muslims. An understandable concern with political Islam, Islamic state, and application of the shari'a can blind us to the reality that, for the vast majority of ordinary Muslims, Islam is first and foremost a response to God, a way to encounter the Creator and to do God's will on earth. These Muslims are not interested in politics or revolution or communal conflict, precisely because they are far too busy trying to provide for their families, raise their children to be God-fearing people, and eke out a measure of God's abundant gifts, blessings for humankind, but very unequally distributed within the human family. It is with such Muslims that we must enter into dialogue concerning the One God who is able to liberate people from sin and from the oppressive structures that we have fashioned.
Without pretending to do justice to the transformative exegesis done by Muslims today, I would like to point out some of the Qur'anic passages that are inspiring some Muslims to propose and carry out a liberative agenda in the context of the social realities of modern Asia.
The Qur'anic ideal which has influenced millions of Muslims down through the centuries is that of a simple, family-oriented life-style that rejects both consumer-oriented displays of wealth and the piling up of material possessions. This even critics of Islam are ready to admit. The Qur'an teaches that what God has given is good and can be enjoyed, but within strict limits of moderation. “Eat and drink,” states the Qur'an, “but do not be extravagant . [God] does not love those who go to excess” (7:31, also 6:141). Wealth and property are considered blessings from God, but must be used properly. Those obsessed with seeking, multiplying and displaying wealth are even accused of being in the same family as demons who are not grateful to God for God's gifts. The Qur'an teaches, “Do not squander [your money] extravagantly. Spendthrifts are the devils' brethren and Satan has always been ungrateful to His Lord” (17: 26-27). The call to a modest way of life underlies, for example, the prohibition against men's wearing gold ornaments such as rings, bracelets, chains and the like.
The Qur'an was first preached to a people who were no less imbued with a dog-eat-dog mentality than our own modern societies. It teaches that aggressive economic activities and amassing personal wealth serve to distract people from what is truly important in life: to do God's will in all things and to stand before God in patience and humility. “ Competition has distracted you , until you visit graveyards. Nevertheless, you soon will know” (102:1-3). The message is clear: the day is coming when people will discover, too late, that their desperate passion for wealth has led them astray and they will have nothing to show for their life's work. Whole civilizations have gone under because of their lack of restraint in regard to material possessions, and all that remains of them are deserted monuments and ruins. As the Qur'an states, “How many civilizations have We wiped out who were reckless in their way of living. Their dwellings have been inhabited only occasionally since then” (28:58).
The Qur'anic ideal of a virtuous life contrasts sharply with that of the “modern advertising ideal” of constantly pursuing fortune, power, beauty, prestige and eternal youth, and restlessly searching for new and exciting pleasures. A famous Qur'an passage sums up what Islamic life is about; it is about faith, generosity, effective concern for the poor, patience in times of distress, and fidelity:
“Virtue does not mean that you turn your faces towards the East or West, but [true] virtue means to believe in God, the Last Day, the angels, the Book and the prophets; and to give one's wealth away out of love for Him to relatives, orphans, the needy, the migrant and beggars, and towards freeing captives; and to keep up prayer and pay the tax for the poor; and those who keep their word whenever they promised anything, and are patient under suffering and hardship and in time of violence. Those are the ones who are loyal, and those are the ones who are heedful [of God's message]” (2:177).
Islam constantly teaches that those who have been blessed with sufficiency or, a fortiori , abundance, have a serious obligation to those who are lacking the basic essentials. It is not merely a matter of good will or feelings of sympathy for the poor, but an obligation that corresponds to a divinely acknowledged right of the poor. In more than one place, the Qur'an states unequivocally: “ The beggar and the destitute have acknowledged right to a portion of people's wealth ” (70:24-25, see also 51:19).
The concept does not remain simply a good idea, but structures have been created in the religion itself to carry out this injunction. The zakat , the fourth obligatory pillar of Islam, is intended to provide for the poor of the community. Sometimes mistranslated as almsgiving , the zakat is more accurately understood as a poor tax . It is a tax of a specific percentage of a Muslim's income (2.5%) or harvest (10%) and is levied expressly for those classes of society who cannot provide for themselves. In the list of recipients of zakat , the Qur'an always puts in the first place near relatives, particularly one's aged parents, and goes on to list other categories of those whose circumstances put them at the mercy of others: the Biblical orphans and widows, beggars, and migrants. Addressing what has in recent times become a significant class of Asia's suffering poor, the Qur'an commands that assistance is also to be given to “refugees who have been expelled from their homes and property ” (59:8).
While zakat is intended to provide for all members of the Muslim community, charity or alms to anyone in need, Muslim or non-Muslim, is highly encouraged in the Qur'an. Such free will offerings, called sadaqa , are to be used “for the poor, the needy, those working at [collecting and distributing it], those whose hearts are being reconciled, for [freeing] captives and debtors, for those [struggling] in God's way, and for the migrant, as a duty imposed by God” (9:60). The Qur'an knows that charity can too easily bear its own reward in that the giver is seen and praised as a person of means who is nevertheless bountiful to the poor. The true charity proposed by the Qur'an should be performed as faithful obedience to what God commands, and as such, it need be seen by no one but God. Thus, in a passage reminiscent of Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount on giving alms, the Qur'an teaches: “If you give sadaqa (alms) openly, that is good, but if you conceal it and give it [directly] to the poor, that is better for you” (2:271).
Zakat is commanded of every Muslim, and in addition Muslims are urged to perform sadaqa . An example of how sadaqa can be used to supplement zakat can be found in the action taken by the Organization of Islamic Conference (O.I.C) during the severe drought in the Sahel region of Africa in the 1980s. The O.I.C. used funds collected from zakat payments by Muslims to aid the predominantly Muslim nations affected, and then contributed $1,000,000 in sadaqa or alms to Cabo Verde, a mainly Christian nation. More recently, a friend who is an aid worker in El Salvador said that, after last year's earthquake in that virtually 100% Christian country, the most effective organizations in supplying fast and much-needed assistance were the Christian organization Caritas and the Islamic Relief Worldwide. Both were on the job within a week of the earthquake and offered their services to all in need with no proselytism or other strings attached.
Islamic Relief Worldwide (I.R.W.) operates in some 22 countries and offers not only disaster relief but development projects on water and sanitation, literacy, business loans, reintegration programs for returning refugees, projects for women's economic empowerment, mother and child care, computer centers, mobile clinics, orphanages, homes for the aged etc. It is significant that the projects in which I.R.W. is engaged reads very much like a list of projects by various Christian welfare agencies - and, one might add, international Jewish relief agencies. Should it be any cause for wonder that the same prophetic tradition, when its teachings are actually put into practice, would result in very similar approaches to the person in need?
Zakat is not intended only as temporary emergency relief for those brought low by personal, familial or natural tragedies, but as a type of ongoing income redistribution. The Qur'an explicitly speaks of wealth being extended “to relatives, orphans, the needy and the migrant, so that it will not circulate merely among the wealthy among you ” (59:7).
This goal of a periodic redistribution of wealth underlies the intricate Islamic laws of inheritance. The Qur'an states: “Men shall have a portion of whatever parents and near relatives leave, and women shall have a portion of what parents and near relatives leave. No matter now small or how large it be, a portion is stipulated for them. When near relatives, orphans and paupers are present at the division [of inheritance], provide for them from it and treat them politely ” (4:7-8). Repeating the same injunction in the same words underlines the inadmissibility of ignoring female heirs or cheating them out of their share. Still more surprising is the Qur'anic inclusion of “relatives, orphans and paupers,” who also have a right to a portion of the inheritance. These latter are not to be treated as interlopers or unwanted guests, for they have a certain right to be present at the redistribution of funds. No doubt referring to the abuse to which such outsiders are commonly subjected, the Qur'an adds pointedly, “and treat them politely.”
Not only are the pillar of zakat and the laws of inheritance oriented to reminding Muslims of their duty to the poor, but celebration of the central Islamic feasts would not be complete without providing for the poor. At Id al-Fitr, the great feast which celebrates the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, Muslims are commanded to pay the zakat al-fitrah so that the poor of the community can also celebrate the feast properly. At Id al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Muslims are commanded to give one-third of the meat of the sacrificed animals to the poor.
The underlying view of wealth presumed by such Qur'anic teaching is that a person's wealth is not simply a private fortune to dispose of in any way one wants. God has a say in the matter and wants to ensure that the person's spouse, children, relatives, as well as helpless and dependent sectors of society, receive their proper share. Thus, along with the wealth that one has received from God goes a responsibility to provide for others, beginning with one's closest family ties and extending all the way to those whose claim is based solely on common humanity.
Wealth and inequalities in economic status are seen in the Qur'an as a test of one's fidelity to God. The Qur'an states: “He is the One who has placed you as overlords on earth and raised some of you higher than others in rank so that He may test you by means of what He has given you” (6:165). And again, “God has favored some of you more than others in providing [for them]. Yet those who have been allowed to excel are not willing to hand over their provision to those under their control so that they become equal partners in it. Do they not thus abuse God's favor?” (16.71, see also 64:15, 8:28). In the God-centered universe envisioned by the Qur'an, the fact that some are wealthy while many are poor is not simply an accident of history, nor the inevitable result of economic determinism or class struggle, but a means by which believers are tested in their fidelity to God's word, in their generosity, sense of responsibility for the neighbor, and humility in recognizing that all that they possess comes from God's bounty.
The Qur'an saves some of its harshest warnings for those are selfish and egotistic in using what they have been granted. “Announce painful torment for those who hoard gold and silver and do not spend them for God's sake” (9:34). And “How terrible it will be for everyone who backbites and slanders, and for him who amasses wealth and keeps on counting it. He reckons that his wealth will make him immortal, but he will be flung into [Hell]” (104: 1-4).
The Qur'anic warnings do not stop with personal selfishness, but extend as well to those who fail in their responsibilities to teach generosity and social concern. “God does not love someone who is conceited and boastful, nor those who are tight-fisted and encourage others to be stingy” (4:36-37). One of the strongest condemnations in the whole Qur'an is directed at the person who refuses to believe God's message and fails to teach the necessity of taking care of the poor. “Take him off and handcuff him. Padlock him to a long chain. Then let him roast in Hell. He neither believed in God almighty nor encouraged others to feed the needy ” (69:30-37).
The message is clear and uncompromising: God is deadly serious about the importance of “feeding the needy,” with all that is implied in that obligation, and about the importance of encouraging others to do likewise, and God will not treat lightly those who neglect this duty. We must not allow the hyperbolic language (reminiscent of some of the prophet Amos' more stringent warnings or of Jesus' injunction to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand, if they cause you to sin) to distract us from the passage's unequivocal message. Failure to integrate what we today call “social concern” into personal and communal religiosity is placed right alongside the refusal to believe in God. Both those who promote an unbridled consumerism as well as theologians and other teachers of religion might do well to hear this warning and tremble!
Given the force of the Qur'anic strictures against an unrestricted use of wealth and the obligation to “give away a part of it” (2:177), it should come as no surprise that a disproportionate number of Muhammad's early followers were women, slaves, and people without means, while his main opponents were the prosperous merchants of Mecca whose financial comfort was connected with the city's role as a flourishing pilgrimage site of the pagan religion.
The Qur'an, however, sees Muhammad's rejection by the wealthy classes of Mecca as indicative of a more general unwillingness to accept the prophetic message on the part of those overly attached to material possessions, those whose security is based on what they “have” rather than what they “are” before God. The Qur'an states: “Whenever we sent a warner to civilizations, the wealthy elite said: ‘We do not believe in what you have been sent with.' They say, ‘We have more wealth and children [than you]; we will not be tormented'” (34:34-35).
The Christian scholar from Sri Lanka, Aloysius Pieris, has called Jesus “God's defense pact with the poor.” In Christ, he sees God displaying, to use the modern phrase, “a preferential option for the poor” and a promise to defend them from the arrogant and unjust use of power on the part of the rich. I agree with this view, but feel that it could be extended to cover the major thrust of the whole prophetic tradition since the time of Abraham and Sarah.
The Qur'anic attitude to an economic system in which “the big fish eat the little fish” is twofold. On the one hand, there are strict warnings against “devouring the wealth of others” through exploitation and manipulation. On the other hand, there are strong expressions of God's commitment to defend the defenseless against those who would take advantage of their vulnerability. One passage displays a knowing awareness that economic aggressiveness and official corruption often go hand in hand and reveal the same Godless mentality. “ Do not devour one another's wealth to no good purpose,” states the Qur'an, “ nor try to bribe authorities with it so that you can aggressively consume a share of other people's wealth, even while you realize [what you are doing]” (2:188).
Economic competition where the only rule is that of profits and annual returns is strongly condemned. What is foreseen, instead, in an Islamic way of life, is economic activity in which both partners freely consent and which is mutually beneficial. “You who believe, do not use up one another's wealth to no good purpose, unless it is for some business based on mutual consent among you” (4: 29). The idea that in business affairs, one takes whatever one can get, is not the way that those who obey God's word must deal with one another.
Profiting from the needs and weaknesses of others underlies the Qur'an prohibition of interest-taking. Debts that cannot be repaid should be postponed or, better yet, written off rather than imposing unbearable burdens on debtors. The Qur'an states: “Listen to God and write off anything that remains outstanding from lending at interest if you are [true] believers. If you do not do so, then be prepared to face war declared by God and His Messenger. If you repent, you may retain your principal. Do no wrong and you will not be wronged. If any debtor suffers hardship, then postpone [repaying] it , until conditions become easier [for the debtor]. And if you treat it as an act of charity, it will be better for you” (2:278-280, cf. also 2:275). In today's world where crushing international debts are causing untold suffering for millions in poor countries, I need not elaborate the relevance of this teaching.
The second side of the Qur'an teaching is the promise of God's punishment of those who exploit the weak and defenseless. Here again, the Qur'an is repeating the consistent prophetic tradition. From the early prophets like Nathan confronting David and Elijah condemning Ahab and Jezebel, through the writings of the Hebrew prophets, and into the teaching of John the Baptist and Jesus, the prophetic word has consistently taken “widows, orphans and strangers” as paradigmatic of all those groups in society who are at the mercy of others. The widows and orphans must rely on the strength of God's word to protect them from injustice, exploitation, and oppression. The widows and orphans in Asia today include indentured laborers, factory workers, street children, sex industry workers, child laborers, tenant farmers, and fishing folk.
The Qur'an reiterates the prophetic word by calling for a change of heart in people, urging them to join the defenders, rather than the oppressors, of the weak. The Qur'an focuses particular attention on the plight of orphans. Many commentators have pointed out that this concern might well reflect some of the misery and indignities to which Muhammad had been subject as an orphan (cf. 93:4-5). If revelation is granted in the context of a prophet's own life experience, this could well be the case. What is clear is the strong Qur'anic condemnation of those who would exploit the orphan and the needy. “Those who live off orphans' property unjustly will only suck up fire into their bellies, and they will roast in the Blaze” (4:10).
There are too many passages in the Qur'an on this theme to cite them all, and any reader of the Qur'an will find justice to the orphan to be a motif that runs throughout the Sacred Book. For example, “ The orphan must not be exploited ; and the beggar should not be brushed aside ” (93: 9, cf. also 6:152, 4:36, 59:7, 4:5-6, 4:8, 2:215, 90:13-14). One might go so far as to say that, according to the Qur'an, a key indication of whether one is accepting or refusing the divine message is the way one treats the orphan and the pauper. The Qur'an states: “Have you seen someone who rejects religion? That is the person who pushes the orphan aside and does not encourage feeding the needy ” (103: 1-3).
Similar to the orphan is the unfortunate child whose parents are more interested in material comfort than in the divine gift and responsibility that are children. In passages that are often cited to oppose the practice of abortion, the Qur'an states: “Do not kill your children out of fear of poverty. We will provide for them and for you. Killing them is a serious sin” (17:31, see also 6:151, 6:140). A poignant passage notes that, on the Last Day, the baby girl who has been destroyed because she would be an economic burden “will be asked for what office she had been killed” (81:8-9). The shameful practice of selling one's children, particularly young girls, into prostitution, which is so prevalent in certain regions of modern Asia, was apparently also quite common at the time of Muhammad. The Qur'an categorically condemns this practice: “Do not force girls, if they want to preserve their chastity, into prostitution , so that you may seek worldly benefits” (24:23).
Other social concerns which the Qur'anic teaching raises for Muslims include: dishonesty in business practice (“It will go badly for cheats who insist on full measure when they have people measure something out fo them; yet whenever they measure or weigh things for others, they give less than what is due” (83: 1-3), manipulation of markets and the use of power to obtain unjust advantages (“You use your oaths in order to snatch at advantages over one another, just because one nation may be more prosperous than another” 16:92), partiality and favoritism in judicial systems “Whenever you judge between people, you should judge on [the principles of] justice” 4:58), racism and ethnic chauvinism “You who believe, do not let one group of people sneer at another set; perhaps those others are better than they are. Women should not ridicule other women; perhaps those other are even better than they are themselves. Nor should you debase yourselves by insulting one another and calling names. It is bad to use evil names [about others] after [entering] the faith” 49:11-12).
I conclude this introductory study with a few words on the duty of those who believe in God to work for peace and reconciliation . The Qur'an allows the Old Testament principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” as a limit of strict justice, that is, one cannot requite compensation greater than the crime (i.e., never demand two eyes for an eye or two teeth for one), but at the same time, the Qur'an encourages believers to go beyond strict justice and operate instead on principles of mercy and forgiveness... to move beyond a legalistic mentality of demanding strict justice to a God-centered spirituality in which people are invited and urged to treat others as God treats us. Here I call your attention to several passages of the Qur'an that point in this direction:
“The payment for an injury should be a proportionate injury. But anyone who pardons offences and makes reconciliation shall be rewarded by God . Those who defend themselves after being wronged will not be blamed for that. Only those who mistreat others and act arrogantly on earth, and have no right to do so, will be held blameworthy” (42:40-42).
“A good deed and an evil deed are not alike: repay [evil] with something better ( ahsan ) and see how someone who is separated from you because of enmity will become a bosom friend!” (41:34). “Repay evil with something that is finer ” (23:96).
“Let those among you who have wealth and resources give something to relatives, paupers and those who are refugees for God's sake. They should forgive and be indulgent . Do you not want God to pardon you? God is forgiving and merciful” (24:22).
“ Cooperate with one another for virtue and heedfulness, but do not cooperate with one another for the purpose of vice and aggression” (5:2).
Concluding this brief review, I hope that for Christians listening to these elements of the Qur'anic message, many of the phrases and attitudes expressed will ring bells with Gospel passages that we are struggling to live out in our Churches in Asia. Some of you might be thinking, “These are lofty ideals, but we do not see them put into practice by Muslims in our countries. Our Muslim political leaders seem to be as rapacious and unconcerned about the plight of the poor as non-Muslims. Our Muslim scholars seem less interested in teaching these elements of the Qur'anic message than in preaching domination and intolerance. Muslims with economic power act with the same ruthlessness and greed as those of other religions or of no religion.”
The reactions are similar when I teach about Christianity to Muslims. My Muslim students repeatedly say that they have no quarrel with the teachings of Jesus or with the way he lived what he preached. He is, after all, considered “the Seal of Holiness” by Muslims. But they regret that this is not what they see when they look at the behavior of Christians around the world. Gandhi's famous phrase: “Christianity is a beautiful thing; it's just never been tried,” is a challenging half-truth.
The sad reality is that both Christians and Muslims are constantly struggling to live in obedience to the prophetic message we have received. We are constantly failing, constantly being called back to repentance (Bible: metanoia , Qur'an: tawba ) and God's forgiveness, constantly standing in need of God's grace which alone can transform our personal and communitarian lives. Moreover, we must not overdraw the picture. I could point to countless examples of Muslims and Christians who concretely seek to care for the poor, to support their just causes, to oppose dehumanizing and unjust systems of economy and government, and to work for true human liberation. There are millions of Muslims and millions of Christians throughout Asia who are striving, often together, to put into practice the message contained in the prophetic word.
But is this not exactly what Christians and Muslims ought to be talking about together - our magnificent ideals and our all-too-often sad realities, our sincere efforts as well as our shameful failures, our wonderful experiences of God's love and our selfish refusal to share that love with others? I suggest that this is what dialogue is all about. I conclude with a verse from the Qur'an: “If God had wanted, He could have made you one community. So compete with one another in doing good deeds , so that He may test you by what he has given you” (5:48).
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