Only two Muslim scholars in the US come close to being recognizable public intellectuals. The closest candidate is Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the Iranian-American philosopher and religion scholar at George Washington University who in a series of lectures in 1967 was the first to address the ecological crisis theologically – Christian theologians trailed him.
The second might be the former British ambassador to Pakistan, the anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed, who was the third to occupy the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University (also in Washington, DC). Check out a review of his recent book is Journey Into America.
But if you live in the UK, you will certainly have heard of physicist Ziauddin Sardar (b. 1951, Pakistan), one of Britain’s top 100 public intellectuals, according to Prospect magazine. With over forty-five books in print, hundreds of articles, he edits the journals Futures and Critical Muslim. Sardar is both a university professor and a journalist of great repute, and a broadcaster. His most recent work is a three-part documentary, “The Life of Muhammad,” for BBC2.
Sardar’s latest book, Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam was published this year by Oxford University Press. Though he's neither an 'alim (a classically trained Islamic scholar) nor an Islamicist, I highly recommend it to you. It’s a fascinating introduction to the Qur’an and a captivating window into how one influential thinker reads it.
Here I only deal with the first five verses of the second sura (just skipping verse one, with the mysterious letters A.L.M.) – the longest chapter of the Qur’an and the one that, for Sardar, nicely summarizes the central themes of the Qur’an as a whole. I will then draw some quick parallels with Christian teaching.
2. This is the Book, wherein is no doubt, a guidance to the God conscious
3. Who believe in that which is beyond the reach of human perception, are steadfast in prayer, and spend of what We have provided them;
4. And who believe in the Revelation sent to you, and sent before your time, and know for certain there is an afterlife.
5. These are truly guided by their Lord, these are the ones who prosper.
Earlier in the book, Sardar had asserted that a Muslim, by definition, is “someone who accepts the Divine origins of the Noble Reading” (5). Put otherwise, the Qur’an is the Word of God. [By the way, Christians would not capitalize “word” if referring to the Bible; Jesus is the Word of God, as in John 1:1, for example]. As Sardar has it, “This is the Book” means “it is the direct word of God”; and that, in turn, “is the foundation of faith and the most basic belief” (71).
This Book, asserts the Qur’an, is “a guidance to the God conscious.” In Arabic, it is “a guidance to those who have taqwa – one of the most repeated Qur’anic words. The older translation was “fear of God,” but Sardar’s preference is “God consciousness.” He explains,
“Taqwa is consciousness, an awareness of the certainty, reality and presence of God that is experienced intellectually, spiritually, emotionally. It is the realization that, as the Qur’an says, God is nearer to us than our jugular vein” (72).
This guidance is meant to steer us in our daily lives, enabling us to stay on the “straight path” (as stated in Sura 1, the Fatiha, or “Opening”). So it’s a dynamic guidance, stirring us to action: “Taqwa may be the basis of faith, the certainty on which belief is founded, but the real challenge is to incorporate it into all our thoughts and actions.”
What is more, God consciousness “shapes the way we conceive the world around us.” Thus taqwa is our God-given capacity to reason and probe both the world and the sacred text. For that reason, doubt must be part of the process. It is here connected to our perception of the Qur’an and it recurs throughout the book:
“[Doubt] is presented as a continuum which stretches from being an essential aid to belief all the way to a blinkered determination not to believe under any circumstances. Doubt is a function of our free will: we are free to accept or reject belief in God” (72).
As a result, “Doubt and certainty are not diametrically opposed.” We have to push through the fog of doubt through the use of reason and reflection in order to arrive at certainty. At the same time, warns Sardar, the self-proclaimed skeptic (see his 2005 autobiography), “[c]ertainty that is never questioned, that ignores or is not tested by doubt, can become prejudice, complacency, the blind following of tradition that undermines the meaning and spirit of the very guidance that should be applied to our daily circumstances in the conditions of the times in which we live” (73).
This connects to another theme of the Qur’an: taqwa, this process of “reasoning consciousness leads us to apprehend al-ghayb, or as Sardar has it, “that which is beyond the reach of human perception.” Literally “the unseen,” al-ghayb stands for all that relates to God, his being and his activity in the world.
I think immediately of the key New Testament passage about faith:
“Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT).
Hebrews 11 then proceeds to list all the great men and women who obeyed God in their generation – often at great cost to themselves – and thereby displayed faith. Take Moses for instance:
“It was by faith that Moses left the land of Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger. He kept right on going because he kept his eyes on the one who is invisible” (v. 27).
The Qur’an then states that these people who believe in the unseen are “steadfast in prayer.” More than just the ritual prayer (salat, one of Islam’s “five pillars”), for Sardar it is connected to the Qur’an’s repeated exhortation to study God’s “Signs” in creation. So prayer cannot be divorced from worship in the form of “experimenting with the material world, promoting thought and learning” – science, in other words.
Moreover, those who remain conscious of the unseen “spend of what He has provided them” – another key Qur’anic theme which Sardar is keen to emphasize. It’s all about distributive justice, he writes, about making sure that the more fortunate share with those who have less. In his words,
“Other people have a claim on our resources, economic, intellectual and creative, social, cultural or emotional. People are not absolute, exclusive owners . . . It is by distributing, putting to work, sharing the bounties that come our way that we ‘prosper’” (75).
As the Qur’an teaches a few verses down, humanity was created as God’s trustees, called to manage the earth’s wealth in His stead and care for one another in His name. So prosperity is not just about material wealth, but especially about the richness of compassion and love we display for one another.
Notice too that those who “believe in the Revelation sent to you” also believe in the revelations sent before. Sardar is a passionate religious pluralist (to be explored in a later blog). For him, the messages sent by God to humanity from Adam to Muhammad are all of equal value. No one has a corner on the truth. Sadly, he notes, Muslims along with people of other faiths have been guilty of “turning the commonality and continuity declared by the Qur’an into an exclusive and excluding identity.” Instead, we should be drawing together the common threads of the various religious traditions that will enable us to change society for the better:
“There is a shared rationale for finding the means to work together to make the world a better place, a place of peace and peaceful cohabitation based on transformative change. In a globalized world of increasing interconnection, there is no separately sustainable way of seeking, let alone establishing, justice, equity, dignity and well-being for all. The message from God is not and should not be a brand name, certainly not a ‘holier than thou’ arrogance that divides Muslim from Muslim, and all Muslims from members of other faiths” (74).
I come back to the Epistle to the Hebrews, near the end of that faith chapter. The parallels to Sura 2:2-5 are striking:
“For this world is not our permanent home; we are looking forward to a home yet to come.
Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name.
And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God” (Hebrews 13:14-16).
As Muslims and Christians we won’t agree on some central tenets of our respective revelations, but we certainly can celebrate – and hopefully put into practice – a God consciousness that empowers us as God’s trustees to shape our world in a way that brings honor to His name.