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Islam: quintessential and universal submission (P.12)

Jul 9, 2010, 3:43 PM

Here we are given a strong sense of the need to view religious affiliation in the light of absolute values, rather than allowing religious affiliation to determine the "colour" or nature of the Absolute: "We are devoted purely to Him"; it is not religion, but God Who is worshipped. "And we worship Him." One is reminded here of the image given by Junayd, and so often quoted by Ibn 'Arabi: "Water takes on the colour of the cup." The imperative of transcending the gods of belief', mentioned earlier, can be seen as concordant with the need to go beyond the "colour" imparted by religious dogma or affiliation, to the pure Absolute, at once surpassing all colour and assuming every colour. As Rumi puts it:

Since colorlessness (pure Unity) became the captive of color (manifestation in the phenomenal world), a Moses came into conflict with a Moses.

When you attain unto the colorlessness which you possessed, Moses and Pharaoh are at peace.

And again:

The religion of Love is separate from all religions: for lovers, the religion and creed is-God.

It might be objected here that the Qur?anic verses cited above could just as easily by interpreted as an affirmation of Islamic exclusivism, the "Islam" revealed by the Quran being the purest from of that primordial religion of Abraham that was subsequently distorted by the Jews and the Christians. It must readily be conceded that such a view would indeed be upheld, in differing degrees, and with varying implication, not only by traditional theological and exoteric authorities, but also by their mystical and esoteric counterparts, including those cited here, Ibn 'Arabi, Rumi, Kashani, and Ghazzali. For all such Sufis-those belonging to what one might call the "normative" Sufi tradition, in which the Shari?ah is scrupulously upheld-Islam in the particular sense would be regarded as the most complete religion, qua religion, and thus the most appropriate one to follow. This belief, however, on the plane of religious form, does not translate into chauvinism, and still less, intolerance. For the metaphysical vision of the religious essence that transcends all forms leads directly to an appreciation of the possibility of salvation and sanctification through diverse, and unequal, religious forms. Even if other religious forms be regarded as less "complete" than Islam, or in a certain sense superseded by it, all believers in God can nonetheless be regarded as belonging to the same community, the same umma defined in terms of essential faith, rather than as a confessionally delimited community. In the Surah entitled "The Prophets," the following verse is given, after mention is made of several prophets, finishing with a reference to the Virgin Mary: "Truly, this, your umma, is one umma, and I am your Lord, so worship Me" (21:92). Just as our God and your God is by one, so all believers, whatever be the outward denominational form taken by their belief, are judged strictly according to their merits, and not according to some artificial religious label:

And those who believe and do good works, We shall bring them into Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever-a promise of God in truth: and who can be more truthful than God in utterance? (4:122).

Lest one think that the category of "those who believe and do good works" refers only to the Muslims in the specific sense-one possible reading, admittedly-the very next verse establishes the universal scope of the promise. This verse, indeed, is of the utmost importance for the perspective or "reading" being expounded here:

It will not be in accordance with your desires, nor the desires of the People of the Scripture. He who doth wrong will have the recompense thereof (4:123).

   One can read this verse as implying that insofar as the Muslim "desires" that salvation be restricted to Muslim in the specific, communal sense, he falls into exactly the same kind of exclusivism of which the Christians and Jews stand accused: "And they say: None entereth paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christians. These are their own desire" (2:11). It should be noted that the same word is used both for the "desire" of the Jews and the Christians, and the "desires" of Muslims, amaniyy. As noted above, the logic of these verses clearly indicates that one from of religious prejudice or chauvinism is not to be replaced with another from of the same, but with an objective, unprejudiced recognition of the inexorable and universal law of Divine justice. This universal law is expressed with the utmost clarity in the following two verses, which complete this important passage from the Sur al-Nisa':

And whoso doeth good works, whether male or female, and is a believer, such will enter paradise, and will not be wronged the dint of a date-stone. Who is better in religion than he who submitted his purpose to God, while being virtuous, and following the religious community of Abraham the devout? (4:124-125).

In these four verses, taken as a whole (4:122-125), the Divine "promise" of salvation is starkly contrasted with confessional "desire"; on the one hand, there is an objective and universal criterion of wholehearted submission to God, and on the other, a subjective and particularistic criterion of formal attachment to a specific community. To return to the verse cited above, one should note the riposte that follows the unwarranted exclusivism of the People of the Book:

And they say: None entered paradise unless he be a Jew or a Christian. These are their own desires, Say: Bring your proof if ye are truthful. Nay, but whosoever submitted his purpose to God, and he is virtuous, his reward is with his Lord. No fare shall come upon them; neither shall they grieve (2:111-112).

Verse 122 thus comes as a concrete rebuttal of unwarranted exclusivism. It does not contradict the exclusivist claims of the Jews and the Christians with an exclusivism of its own, that is, with a claim that only "Muslims", in the specific sense, go to Paradise. Access to salvation, far from being further narrowed by reference to the privileged rights of some other "group", is broadened, and in fact universalized: those who attain salvation and enter paradise are those who have submitted wholeheartedly to God and are intrinsically virtuous. Faithful submission, allied to virtue: such are the two indispensable requisites for salvation. Thus it is perfectly justified to argue that the verse dose not respond "in kind" to the exclusivism of the People of the Book, but rather pitches the response on a completely different level, a supra-theological or metaphysical level, which surpasses all reified definitions, confessional denominations, communal allegiances, and partisan affiliations.

It is also important to note that the words cited earlier, "Unto God belong the East and the West, and wherever ye turn, there is the Face of God," come two verses later, at 2:115. This verse is referred to by Ibn 'Arabi at the end of the following well-known warning to Muslim against restricting God to the form of one?s own belief, a warning that is entirely in accordance with the thrust of the Qur?anic discourse:

Beware of being bound up by a particular creed and rejecting others as unbelief! Try to mark yourself a prime matter for all forms of religious belief. God is greater and wider than to be confined to one particular creed to the exclusion of others. For He say, wherever ye turn, there is the Face of God.

We can also turn to Ibn 'Arabi for a useful Sufi means of overcoming one of the obstacles to wholesome dialogue between Muslims and members of other faiths: the traditional legal notion of the abrogation of other religions by Islam. Before doing so, however, it is important to situate the principle of abrogation in relation to the verse cited above, 2:62, in which salvation is promised not just to Muslims in the specific sense, but also to Jews and Christians and Sabeans, whoever believeth in God and the Last Day and performed virtuous deeds.

To be continued.