Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Scholars try to reconcile problematic religious texts ...

The following article is an appropriate context when reflecting on the meaning of Sura 1:6-7

Scholars try to reconcile 'problematic' religious texts

Christian, Jewish and Muslim experts met this week to add context to passages that have been perceived as hostile toward other faiths.

By K. Connie Kang, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer October 20, 2007

Speaking with mutual respect and sensitivity, prominent Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars and clergy from around the country met in Los Angeles this week to "wrestle" with what one rabbi described as the "dark side" of the three faith traditions.

Experts cited "problematic" passages from the Hebrew Scripture, the New Testament and the Koran that assert the superiority of one belief system over others.

As an example, the Rt. Rev. Alexei Smith, ecumenical and interreligous official of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, quoted from the Gospel of Mark: "Go into the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned."

Rabbi Reuven Firestone, director of the Institute for the Study of Jewish-Muslim Interrelations at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, mentioned a series of texts, including a verse from Deuteronomy: "For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples of the earth the Lord your God chose you to be His treasured people."

And Muzammil H. Siddiqi, chairman of the Fiqh (Islamic Law) Council of North America, quoted from the Koran:

"You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians as allies: they are allies only to each other. Anyone who takes them as an ally becomes one of them -- God does not guide such wrongdoers."

In explaining the passage from the Gospel of Mark, Smith said that the troubling portion was appended a century after it was written -- when the four Gospels were compiled.

He said the longer ending, which added 12 verses, was written at a time when Christians either were questioning their faith in the resurrection of Jesus or defending it against skeptics and nonbelievers.

Siddiqi took up the quote from the Koran, found in Chapter 5, verse 51, explaining that the problem lies not in the text, but in its interpretation.

"Some extremists among Muslims use this text to say that Muslims should not trust non-Muslims," he said. "Some Islam bashers use this text to claim that Islam is an unfriendly religion," said Siddiqi, who is also chairman of the Shura Council of Southern California.

He said the verse was revealed to the prophet Muhammad after the Battle of Hadh, when Muslims of Medina were overwhelmed by a larger number of nonbelievers from Mecca. "After that, Muslims were very frightened," he said. "Some, who were weak in their faith, said, 'We are going to make alliance with Jewish people, in order to find protection there.' Some said, 'We are going to make alliance with Christians, so we'll have protection there.' "

The idea behind the verse is not that Muslims should shun Jews and Christians, but that they should stand up on their own feet and do their best, he said.

Firestone addressed the references to the Israelites as God's elect in the books of Deuteronomy, Exodus and Amos.

"Why did God favor Israel?" he asked. "Why did God make the oath to the Israelite ancestors? The answer to these questions is not provided clearly in the text."

He believes the origin of "chosen-ness" stems from the structure of tribal religion in the ancient Middle East. "Each of Israel's neighboring communities seems to have had its own ethnic or national God," he said.

Firestone said that all monotheistic traditions are confronted with the problem of chosen-ness and that "we all need to work through this absolutely basic notion in each of our religious systems."

Keynote speaker Mary C. Boys, a professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, said that though writers of the Gospels differ in their accounts of Jesus' passion and crucifixion, all cite Jews as primarily responsible for his death.

She finds two texts especially troublesome -- one in which Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, says, "I am innocent of this man's blood," and the crowd answers, "His blood be on us and our children!"

"This is troubling because Imperial Rome had far more to do with the death of Jesus than the Gospels reflect," she said. "Even more troubling is the way in which early Christian teachers built upon this charge as the rivalry with Judaism widened and deepened."

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which co-sponsored the event with Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., said all people of faith need to "take ownership of their most difficult texts, wrestle with them -- not run away from them -- but confront them, where appropriate, set them in their proper historical context."After wrestling, I hope people can understand these texts in the appropriate contexts and realize that not all of them, but many of them, are bound by conditions of social milieu, of culture, of historical context.

"In some instances, he continued, people of faith need to say to themselves, "This is part of my sacred tradition, but I reject it. I find this text offensive. It goes against my own morality, and it goes against what I believe God expects of me in the world today."

That calls for a great deal of theological introspection, education and courage, he said.

Called "Troubling Tradition: Wrestling With Problem Passages," the program at the Luxe Hotel in Bel-Air on Monday and Tuesday was the second in a series of four international conferences initiated by the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding of Sacred Heart University.

"We want to foster serious theological and moral thinking about those aspects of our traditions . . . that are intolerant and delegitimizes the other and have been used by extremists to foster violence and hatred," said Rabbi Eugene Korn, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. "It's absolutely critical now because of the increase in religious violence and extreme hostility."

The first conference was held last year in Connecticut. There will be conferences in Germany in 2008 and Jerusalem in 2009. The papers presented at the conferences will be published as a book and posted on the Internet.

Speakers at the Los Angeles conference also included Rabbi Elliott Dorff, rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University, and Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Conservative Christian Ann Coulter's recent comment about Jews needing to be "perfected" by converting to Christianity was mentioned only in passing.

"Panelists and presenters chose not to dignify her remarks with a response," Diamond said.

Jerry D. Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology, summed up the event:

"God is challenging us to take the idea of troubling texts to the next level, to begin a new conversation across faiths and throughout the world, with the goal of realizing God's own hope that all God's creation may learn to live harmoniously together."

Monday, October 15, 2007

Divine Anger (1:7)

"It is to be noted that God's Anger is not specifically mentioned in the last verse; it is those who are the objects of anger, those who elicit the anger that are referred to; the subject of the anger can be either God or the soul or both, the one being an aspect of the other. On the contrary, the divine Mercy is stressed again and again, and the sole act directly attributed to God in this prayer is blessing: The Muslim seeks to be guided along the straight path, the path of those whom God has blessed. One is drawn into the mystery expressed more directly in this verse: "Whatever good comes to you is from God, and whatever evil comes to you is from your own soul." (4:79). And, more explicitly: "We have tied every man's augury to his own neck, and We shall bring forth for him on the Day of Judgment a book that he will find open wide. (It will be said to him:) Read your book. Your own soul suffices this day unto you as a reckoner" (17:13).

In the light of these and several other verses, one is able to move from an anthropomorphic conception of divine Anger to an ontological one: Rather than picture God as some gigantic man in the sky who punishes and forgives at will, one is drawn into the mysterious depths of the true nature of being. Ruptures in being must needs rectified, not by some arbitrary act by a capricious individual, but by the immutable principles of justice and peace, truth and love, principles of which the ultimate nature of Reality is woven. In the mystical tradition of Islam it is said that the "Anger of God" is nothing but the extrinsic consequence of the lack of the soul's receptivity to the mercy that eternally radiates from the very nature of being. This mercy is calling out to the soul in every moment, and it is for the soul but to respond in order to be given beatific life in the Real: "O you who believe, respond to God and the Messenger when He invites you to that which gives you life" (8:24)."

~ Excerpt from Reza Shah-Kazemi's My Mercy Encompasses All, pp. 9-10

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

My Mercy Encompasses All Things (7:156)

"The divine Names most clearly associated with mercy and compassion are given in the formula by which every significant act in Islam is consecrated, and with which every chapter of the Koran begins (with the exception of Chapter 9), the formula known as the basmala: "In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful" (bismi'Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim). The two Names, al-Rahman and al-Rahim, share the same root (r-h-m), and both express rahma, the meaning of which comprises the qualities of compassion, mercy, forgiveness, loving goodness. "Call upon Allah or call upon al-Rahman," the Koran tells us, expressing the quasi-equivalence between "the Compassionate" and God as such, thereby indicating the defining characteristic or "identity" of the ineffable One, "whichever of these two (Names) you call upon, unto Him belong the most beautiful Names." (17:110).

Given the fact that among the divine Names one also finds "the Almighty," "the Avenger," and other Names expressive of divine rigor, it is of great significance that the formula of consecration contains a repetition of the theme of mercy; one might have thought it more "logical" or balanced to include a name of rigor in this definitive consecration describing the essential nature of "God" in whose name one begins everything, and this have something like: "In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Powerful." The very fact that two Names of Mercy are given in this formula, which inaugurates the revelation and consecrates every act of significance for the Muslim, allows one to see that the essential nature of ultimate Reality is compassionate and merciful, these two qualities being expressive of the overflow of infinite love.

In the spiritual tradition of Islam, great stress is placed on love as being the fountainhead of creation. "I was a hidden treasure," God declares, "and I loved to be known, so I created the world." The Names of Mercy, al-Rahman and al-Rahim, give voice to this creative impulse of divine love, and they are both related to the word rahm, which means "womb." Here one glimpses another mystery of the all-embracing oneness of mercy: Just as the womb entirely envelops the embryo growing within it, the divine "matrix" of compassion contains and nourishes the whole corpus of existence unfolding within itself. The qualities of divine anger are not being denied in this perspective; rather, they are seen as the inevitable consequences of human sin. The latter is by definition limited and relative, so the divine qualities elicited by relativity cannot be placed on the same level as those that flow forth from the very nature of the Absolute. Thus we are told not only that "My Mercy encompasses all things" but also that "My Mercy takes precedence over My Anger." On the one hand, there is the rigorous restoration of an equilibrium ruptured by the sins of relative beings; on the other, the merciful reintegration of purified souls within the beatific nature of the Absolute.

The Koran describes the divine Mercy in a manner that is as inspiring as it is overwhelming: God's love is infinite and thus His Mercy is given to us "beyond all reckoning," beyond anything "deserved" by us; this is a key dimension of the spiritual justice of God: "Whoever comes (before God) with a good deed will receive ten like it; but whoever comes (before God) with an evil deed will only be requited with its like; and no injustice will be done to them" (6:160).

~ Excerpt from "My Mercy Encompasses All" by Reza Shah-Kazemi, pp. 5-8