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Islam: Quintessential and Universal Submission (P.13)

Jul 16, 2010, 2:09 PM | Article By: Alhaji ousman M. Jah

A great deal hinges on the meaning attributed to this verse. Its literal meaning is clear enough: all believers who act virtuously, in consequence of their faith, is promised that their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve. "But it is held by many of the traditional commentators, based on a report from Ibn 'Abbas that this verse is abrogated by 3:85 - And whoso seeketh a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the Hereafter. "Among the classical commentators, however, it is noteworthy that Tabari (d.310/923) and the Shi'ite commentator Tabarsi (d. 548/1153) both reject the idea that the verse can be subject to abrogation. In general, as regards the principle of abrogation (naskh), Tabari writes, in his commentary on verse 2:106-?We abrogate no verse, nor do We cause it to be forgotten, but that We bring one better that it or like it:"

Thus, God transforms the lawful into the unlawful, and the unlawful into the lawful, and the permitted into the forbidden, and the forbidden into the permitted. This only pertains to such issues as commands and prohibitions, proscriptions and generalizations, preventions and authorizations. But as for reports (akhbar), they cannot abrogate nor be abrogated.

In regard to verse 2:62, he writes that the literal meaning of the verse should be upheld, without being restricted in its scope by reference to reports of its abrogation, "because, in respect of the bestowal of reward for virtuous action with faith, God has not singled out some of His creatures as opposed to others." Tabari, in his commentary Majma' al-bayan fitafsir al-quran, argues that "abrogation cannot apply to a declaration of promise. It can be allowed only of legal judgments which may be changed or altered with change in the general interest."

Nonetheless, as regards the specifically juristic point of view, it is almost universally upheld that Islam "abrogates" the previous dispensations, in the sense that its revealed law supersedes the law promulgate in pre-Qur'anic revelations, with the concomitant that it is no longer permissible for Muslims to abide by those per-Qur'anic revealed laws, the Shari'ah brought by the Prophet being henceforth normative and binding. How, then, can a Muslim today, concerned with dialogue, reconcile the idea of salvation being accessible to non-Muslims who faithfully follow their religions, on the one hand, with the principle that Islam abrogates or supersedes all previous religions? One answer is given by Ibn 'Arabi, for whom the fact of abrogation does not imply the nullification of those religions which are superseded, nor does it render them salvifically inefficacious. In a brilliant dialectical stroke, Ibn "Arabi transforms the whole doctrine of abrogation from being a basis for the rejection of other religions into an argument for their continuing validity. For one of the reasons for the pre-eminence of Islam is precisely the fact that Muslims are enjoined to believe in all revelations and not just in that conveyed by the Prophet of Islam:

All the revealed religions are lights. Among these religions, the revealed religion of Muhammad is like the light of the sun among the lights of the starts. When the sun appears, the light of the start are hidden, and their lights are included in the light of the sun. Their being hidden is like the abrogation of the other revealed religions that takes place through Muhammad's revealed religion. Nevertheless, they do in fact exist, just as the existence of the lights of the starts is actualized. This explains why we have been required in our all-inclusive religion to have faith in the truth of all the messenger and all the revealed religions. They are not rendered null [batil] by abrogation-that is the opinion of the ignorant.

Finally, one to address the fact that the Qur'an not only contains verses that clearly assert the Divine ordainment of religious diversity, the exhortation to engage in dialogue, and the presence of piety and righteousness in religions other than Islam; it also contains verses of a polemical nature.  For example:

O ye who believe, take not the Jews and the Christians for guardians. They are guardians one to another. He among you who taketh them for guardians is (one) of them. Truly, God guideth not wrongdoing folk (5:51).

And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of God, and the Christian say: The Messiah is the son of God. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. God fighteth them. How perverse are they! (9:30)

There are numerous such verses, which demonstrate the formal contradiction between different theological perspectives, and the consequent difficulties attendant upon the effort to engage in effective dialogue on the basis of theological perspectives alone. They also indicate, albeit indirectly, the necessity of elevating the mode of discourse to a metaphysical, supra-theological level, from the vantage point of which those formal contradiction are rendered less decisive as determinants of dialogue. The contradictions remain on their own plane; but the more challenging question is to determine the significance of that plane, and to make an effort to discern within the text of the Qur'an itself those openings that warrant a transition to a higher plane. This is what has been attempted in this paper, with the help of Sufi metaphysical perspectives on the Qur'an.

But one must also respond to the specific question: in the concrete context of interfaith dialogue, how is one to relate to the verses that severely criticize the dogmatic errors of the People of the Book? Apart from pointing out the need to examine carefully each such verse, to contextualize it, and to examine the degree to which the error in question is attributable to the orthodox theologies apparently being censured, one would respond immediately by referring to the following verse: "Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and hold discourse with them [the People of the Book] in the finest manner" (16:125). One is urged to use one's judgment, one's own "wisdom" to debate with the "other" in the most appropriate manner, taking into account both the particular conditions in which the dialogue is being conducted, and the principal priority that must be accorded to universal realities-so clearly affirmed in the Qur'an-over historical, communal, and even theological contingencies. In other words, insofar as one's orientation to the religious "other" is determined by spiritual, rather than theological or legal considerations, one should give priority to those which are of a clearly principal or universal nature, as opposed to those which are clearly contextual in nature. By "contextual" is meant those verses which relate to the plane of theological exclusivism or inter-communal conflict, the very plane that is transcended by the vision that unfolds from the verses stressed and commented upon above.

Secondly, there is no warrant, even with an exclusivist reading of the Qur'an, for any brand of religious intolerance, and still less, persecution of non-Muslims. Far from it. In fact the Muslims are enjoined to defend churches and synagogues, and not just mosques- all being described by the Qur'an as places "wherein the name of God is much invoked" (22:40). One should also cite in this connection the historically recorded acts of tolerance manifested by the Prophet himself: for example, the treaty of Medina, in which the Jews were given equal rights with the Muslims; the treaty signed with the monks of St Catherine's monastery on Sinai; and, especially, the highly symbolic fact that, when the Christians delegation arrived from Najran to engage the Prophet in theological debate, principally over the Divine nature of Christ, they were permitted by him to perform their liturgical worship in his own mosque.

One observes here a perfect example of how disagreement on the plane of dogma can co-exist with a deep respect on the superior plane of religious devotion. This example of the prophetic sunnah or conduct is a good background against which one can evaluate the following important passage from the Discourses of Rumi.