21 September 2011

"My Brother's Keeper" as Human Solidarity

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Cain, son of Adam, kills his brother Cain, son of Adam, kills his brother http:http://www.artbible.info/art/large/81.mwo4ml//www.paintinghere.com/painting/Cain_and_Abel_15042.mwo4ml

His hands still bloody from bludgeoning his brother and hastily burying him, Cain, son of Adam, hurried home. Yet the satisfaction of getting rid of his life’s biggest nuisance was now, ever so slightly, eroded by an edginess he couldn’t pin down. Suddenly, a voice out of nowhere – yet a voice he instinctively recognized – rang in his ear. “Where is your brother, Cain?” He angrily retorted, “O God! Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

The Bible’s storyline is about a God who creates a dazzling world and places one creature at its pinnacle – the only one fashioned in his own image –with the mission to care for it. Yet right from the start that crazy gamble looks doomed, and things go from bad to worse. In the end, though, he decides to come down as a man who sacrifices his own perfect life so that humankind can be redeemed from sin, death and hell. Jesus embodies on the cross the man who truly became not only his brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, but also their savior. 

There’s no redeemer story in the Qur’an, though the Prophet, in popular piety, functions like a perfect man who intercedes for the faithful on the Last Day. Having said that, the creation narrative is remarkably similar. God announces to the angels that he is placing Adam as his trustee on earth, or his representative. The angels protest. Why would God empower creatures as stewards of his world, who clearly have the potential to “sow mischief and shed blood” (Q. 2:30)? In both Bible and Qur’an God takes an enormous risk by empowering humanity as his vicegerents. 

From the start, then, humanity is honored. In Genesis 1:27 both men and women are made in God’s image, while several well-attested hadiths (sayings about what the Prophet said and did) teach that Adam was created in the image of the Merciful. So in light of this, as deputies of the Most High, fashioned in his image, our first priority is to care for people everywhere, while we also remember to care for the earth and its myriad creatures. Put otherwise, we seek to preserve the balance and health of the earth’s ecosystems so as to benefit everyone equally.


 Cain and Abel revisited 

  Now back to Cain and Abel, whose story is also told in the Qur’an, though not by name. Here Cain’s crime is used as a lead-in, a) to a statement about the Mosaic Law and murder; and b) to a legal section on murder and sedition. Here’s the key verse, quoted again and again since 9/11, as proof that Islam does not condone violence: 


“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Q. 5:32). 


Unless it is capital punishment for murder or violent rebellion, the killing of another person is like killing all humanity, and saving one person is akin to saving all humanity. Human life is sacred and all human beings are endowed with the same dignity, regardless of race, class or religion – at least, this represents the view of most every Muslim scholar today.


 A comment on hermeneutics, polemics, and interfaith dialog

 I could leave it at that, but if you googled “as if he had killed all of mankind,” you would discover that there is a great deal of Internet chatter on this issue. I will comment on three issues that flow out of this debate and then conclude. 


1. Islamophobia is alive and well and this verse is an easy target. Probably the best example is by an author calling himself “Atheist Jabali” (“Killing all Humanity: How Obama Misinterprets Quran 5:32 and Passes a Noble Jewish Teaching as Islamic). The tone is obviously polemical, and as such, much of what he says can easily be countered. Take his point about Obama quoting wrongly, “whoever kills an innocent.” True, it’s not a literal translation, but it is still faithful to the original verse – the case of a murderer or someone guilty of armed rebellion is excluded from the start. But he does raise an interesting question about the context of the verse, which is rarely quoted in its entirety. It is about what God taught the Israelites, presumably through the Law of Moses. Yet if you look for this idea in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), you won’t find it. You have to go to the Talmud to find such a reference – he’s right. As it turns out, the Hebrew original has the “blood” spilled in the plural. So in the commentary of the Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, of the Talmud, we read:


“The voice of the 'bloods' of thy brother are crying unto me from the ground. It does not read ‘blood’, but ‘bloods’, which means his blood and the blood of his descendants. [According to others it reads ‘bloods’ in the plural, because his blood was scattered all over the trees and stones.] Therefore the man was created singly, to teach that he who destroys one soul of a human being, the Scripture considers him as if he should destroy a whole world, and him who saves one soul of Israel, the Scripture considers him as if he should save a whole world.”


This is the closest possible source for the qur’anic assertion of Q. 5:32. Could there be other possible biblical interpretations of this verse? Of course, and there have been. But we are simply describing what turns out to be the case with all sacred texts: a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, constantly evolving with the changing times. 


2. Respect the way devotees interpret their own sacred texts. This is a cardinal rule of interreligious dialog. I did some poking around classical commentaries in Arabic and English and nobody seemed to care whether this saying came from the Bible or not. The Qur’an said God taught it to the Jews – end of matter. The only issue raised (and sometimes this verse was simply glossed over) was how killing one person could be killing all humankind. The fourteenth century commentator Ibn Kathir offers this simple explanation, “because there is no difference between one life and another.” But there is more than meets the eye here, as my next statement makes clear.


3. Nevertheless, you will have to draw a line in the sand. On the one hand, as an outsider, for me the vast majority of qur’anic interpretation is simply to observe and compare. I evaluate it only in relation to other views and as a scholar I do my best to catalog different currents of thought. Some issues, on the other hand, touch on human rights and can lead to discrimination, hostility and even violence. And, it turns out, some people devote their whole career to focus on the very worst of elements of the Islamic tradition (see my blog McCarthyism Returns in the 2010s). But in the interest of a fair-minded dialog between Christians and Muslims, and for the benefit of all my readers, I have to point out problem areas, as many of my Muslim colleagues do as well.

For instance, the above-mentioned Ibn Kathir cites one early commentator, Sa’id bin Jubayr, who understands the verse to mean this:


“He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people.” 


This narrowing down of the scope of whose murder is equivalent to the murder of all humanity is understandable at the time (the Abode of Islam was theoretically and practically at war with the rest of the world, the Abode of War), but it would be problematic nowadays. After all the genocides of recent history – before and after the issuing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we dare not as people of faith open any loophole that would make some people less “human” than others.

My colleague in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at the St. Joseph's University, Rabbi Alan Iser, did a search for me in the Talmud. His conclusion was that this passage was also interpreted by the majority of Jewish scholars over the ages as only applying to the shedding of "Jewish" blood.

 The islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was the chief propagandist for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, turned much more radical than the mainstream of the Brotherhood and led a faction while in prison that later developed into the so-called “jihadis” of today. The starting point was to restrict the above-mentioned human trusteeship to the Muslim community (I covered this in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text). The next step was to hark back to the classical notion of jihad and the dualistic vision of the world that went with it. Here is Qutb’s interpretation of this passage on Adam’s two sons in his monumental commentary, In the Shade of the Qur’an:


“The law given to the Children of Israel included this principle which equates the life of any human being with every life. The right to life is applicable to all. Hence, killing one person is an aggression against the right to live in which all people stand equal.” 


No problem here. But in the next paragraph, we plunge into a different world altogether:


“It should be clarified here that this rule applies to people in the land [Abode] of Islam, whether Muslim or not, as long as they are living under the rule and protection of the Islamic authority. As for those who are in a land hostile to Islam [Abode of War], neither their lives nor their properties are protected unless they have concluded a peace treaty with the land of Islam. This legislative rule should be well remembered. We should also remember that the land of Islam is that in which the rule of Islam prevails and Islamic law is implemented. The hostile land is that which does not implement Islamic law.”


As you can see, this kind of interpretation leads to declaring, a) leaders of Muslim nations as unbelievers (kafir) and therefore targets for assassination; b) fellow Muslims who deny one’s islamist vision as kafir; c) current governments as anti-Islamic and in need of toppling, making way for the imposition of strict shari’a law (however interpreted).


 A Muslim-Christian declaration of human solidarity

 This is a far cry from the recent Muslim initiative at the very highest level from all corners of the Islamic world – the Common Word letter, which begins thus:


“Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour.”


After all, the foundational narrative in both traditions begins with the human being created as God’s trustee on the earth – a great honor and a grave responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain sarcastically. “Indeed you are!” came the response indirectly. In fact, as a punishment for the “bloods” spilled into the ground, he wandered a fugitive for the rest of his life.

To kill another human being is like killing all, and to save one, is like saving all. Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, all of us, wherever we may be scattered on the face of the earth or on the spectrum of social statuses, we are all of equal value in God’s eyes.