Monday, December 13, 2004

UNDERSTANDING. Posted by Hello
Understanding the Abrahamic Ethic
An excerpt from What' s Right with Islam: a New Vision for Muslims and the West, by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
A few thousand years ago, in the earliest known ancient Middle Eastern civilizations that straddled the area between Egypt and Persia and in a society characterized by a polytheistic religious, political, and sociological climate, a man called Abraham was born in the area now called Iraq. He found the idea of polytheism unacceptable. Biblical and Islamic narratives inform us that Abraham's father was a sculptor of such idols. We can well imagine the young boy Abraham seeing his father fabricating such statues from the raw material of wood or stone and perhaps occasionally cursing when the material cracked. The reality of the Chinese proverb "He who carves the Buddha never worships him" must have been apparent to Abraham, who probably observed, in the way children see through their parents' absurdities, the creature creating the Creator.
The Quran quotes Abraham as debating with his contemporaries: "Do you worship that which you yourselves sculpt-while God has created you and your actions?" (37:95-96). After going on a spiritual search, and after rejecting the sun, the moon, and the stars as objects of worship (objects his community worshiped), Abraham realized that there could be only one creator of the universe-one God (Quran 6:75-91 describes Abraham's search for God). Today Muslims, Christians, and Jews regard Abraham as their patriarch, the founder of a sustained monotheistic society subscribing to the belief that there is only one God, the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe.
The monotheism that Abraham taught was not only theologically radical, in that it decried the plurality of gods as false, it was also socially radical. The idea that God is one implied two significant things about humankind.
First, it implied that all humans are equal, simply because we are born of one man and one woman. "O humankind," God asserts in the Quran, "surely we have created you from one male [Adam] and one female [Eve] and made you into tribes and clans [just] so that you may get to know each other. The noblest of you with God are the most devout of you" (Quran 49:13). This meant that all of humankind is a family-brothers and sisters, equal before God, differentiated only by the nobility of our actions, not by our birth. Showing preference for one human over another on the basis of accidents of birth, like skin color, class structure, tribal or family belonging, or gender, is unjust and therefore has no place in a proper human worldview. Although it grossly violates reason and ethics, showing preference on the basis of these categories is the very way people traditionally judged others and structured their societies.
Second, because we are equal and have been given free will by our Creator, we have certain inalienable liberties. The most significant liberty we have been given is to accept or reject God, our Creator. Every other choice is a distant second to this, from the liberty to choose between a host of right and wrong actions to the liberty to choose our spouse or profession instead of being born into them. Because we are free to think for ourselves, thought control is anathema to this ethic of free will. Even today, in many parts of the world people are still socially coerced into a certain religious belief, job, spouse, or way of thinking. Our delight in movies that depict the love story of a prince who wants to marry a poor farmer's daughter demonstrates how much this commitment to free will is embedded in us-how we sympathize with those prohibited from marrying "outside their class" by such social rules of propriety.
"There shall be no coercion in religion; the right way is clearly distinct from error," asserts the Quran (2:256). In verses such as "The Truth is from your Lord; so let whomever wills, believe, and let whomever wills, disbelieve" (Quran 18:29, italics mine), the Quran asserts that God created us free to choose to believe in or reject God. "Had God willed He would have made you into one community (ummah); but [it was His will] to test you in what He gave you. So compete with each other in doing good works. To God you are all returning, and He will inform you about how you differed" (Quran 5:48).
Human free will, the liberty to make our own individual choices-and our own mistakes-is essential to human dignity. Only if we have free will can we be held individually accountable for our choices and actions. Only then can we grow and mature, learning to be responsible agents. Without the freedom to choose, how could we be held responsible?
But because individual humans can and do freely exercise their will in ways that sow inequality and limit the liberties of others, an ethic of free will judges such violations as wrong, unjust, and tyrannical. Jews, Christians, and Muslims therefore have a particularly strong sense of social justice; they are keen to seek retributive justice.
We shall call this cluster of monotheism's core ideas and its concomitants of human liberty, equality, fraternity, and social justice the Abrahamic ethic. These ideas constitute the essential core of Abrahamic religion and the later iterations and reformations of the Abrahamic religion known today as the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Abrahamic ethic required that society allow its individual members the freedoms appropriate to human dignity, the freedom to stand before the Creator and exercise individual choices without society's coercion. This ethic speaks not only to theology, that is, that our ideas about God should be built upon the idea of God's oneness, transcendence, and ineffability, but also to issues of sociology and politics, about how society should be structured, namely, that society should be structured on the basis of human equality, human liberty, and social justice.
Readers may wonder why monotheists call Abraham the "father of us all" rather than exclusively of the monotheistic faith traditions. While it's true that India, China, and Japan are not generally monotheistic societies, increasingly they are implementing democratic systems of governance-systems anchored in the concept of human equality and thus emanating from the Abrahamic ethic. This is an ethic that is embedded in our human nature.
In the polytheistic society of Abraham's time, it was politically and sociologically incorrect to claim that liberty, equality, fraternity, and social justice were essential to the human condition; such talk was not only revolutionary, it would have required a paradigm shift in social thought. While a prophet conveying this message might be popular with the poor and disenfranchised in society, the message itself threatened to deprive the higher classes of their special status in society. In most cases entrenched power elites vigorously fought any prophet who conveyed such a message. Abraham tried unsuccessfully to convince his people to believe in only one God, a God who is beyond human capacity to fully comprehend, who bears no resemblance to humanly sculpted likenesses. The Quran says that those who rejected Abraham's message urged their people to move against Abraham for his perfidy against their gods: "Burn him and defend your gods-if you're going to do something!" Abraham was saved by God, who commanded the flame to "be lukewarm and a safe haven for Abraham!" (Quran 21:68-69).
The Quran laments the human tendency to reject God's prophets sent to guide humanity: "We indeed gave Moses the Book, and sent a string of messengers succeeding him, and We gave Jesus son of Mary clear arguments, aiding him with the Holy Spirit. Why is it then that whenever a messenger came to you with what didn't match your desires, some you rejected, and others you slew?" (Quran 2:87). Prophets were not welcomed; rather they were attacked, punished, and chased out of town for trying to convince their contemporaries of the truths of monotheism. Abraham suffered the same fate, leaving town with his followers.
The Quran emphasizes the universality of the Abrahamic ethic by asking, "And who desires other than the Abrahamic ethic (millati ibrahim) except the one who depreciates himself?" (Quran 2:130). Implicit here is that the Abrahamic ethic honors human dignity and demands that a human being respect his or her dignity as human, and it holds no countenance for religious or social practices that discriminate between humans at birth, deeming some capable and others incapable by nature of knowing God. Such doctrines absolve those whom they declare incapable of the supreme duty of acknowledging and worshiping the one God and thus rob them of their essential humanity.
This natural religiousness or natural piety is absolutely normative for all humans. By definition, it admits of no exception. While it may not coerce anyone into observing its tenets, it is categorically opposed to, and condemning of, those who violate them or permit their violation; otherwise, it would not be consistent with itself. God describes Himself in the Quran as "Nature's God" by using a variety of descriptive expressions of Nature, such as Lord of the worlds (Quran 1:2), Lord of the heavens and the earth and what is between them (Quran 78:37), Lord of the east and the west (Quran 73:9), and so forth. The Abrahamic ethic, as the defining feature of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic praxis, presents its case as a demand of nature, a necessary requisite of reason, and a critical truth.
It was therefore no accident that the cry of the French Revolution was for human "liberty, equality and fraternity," essential components of the Abrahamic ethic. Neither was it an accident that the authors of the American Declaration of Independence expressed the Abrahamic ethic as "self-evident Truths: that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," a Creator whose laws of creation are by definition the laws of nature. And since nature is a manifestation of God's creation, nature's laws are therefore God's laws: natural law is divine law. So, the argument goes, what you feel in your heart as good and right is the very foundation of divine law.
The above-quoted Quranic verse, which points out that whoever desires something other than the religion of Abraham has disgraced himself (Quran 2:130), goes on to say that God commanded Abraham to "Submit!" (aslim), whereupon he responded, "I submit myself (aslamtu) to the Lord of the worlds." The Quran calls Abraham a muslim (Quran 2:130-36, also 22:78) and defines Islam as the human act of submitting oneself to God in accord with the principles we have described above as comprising the Abrahamic ethic.The Quran continues, "And Abraham enjoined his sons, and so did Jacob: "O my sons, surely God has chosen religion for you, so don't die except that you are submitted" (muslimun, that is, muslims). "Or were you witnesses when Jacob was on the verge of death, when he said to his sons, 'What will you worship after me?' They answered, 'We shall worship your God and the God of your fathers Abraham, and Ishmael and Isaac; one God only, and to Him we are submitters'" (muslimun, Quran 2:130-33).
Abraham enjoined his sons Ishmael (born from Hagar) and Isaac (born from Sarah) to worship only this one God, and they in turn enjoined the same upon their children. Isaac's son Jacob, later renamed Israel, had twelve sons, each who fathered the tribes collectively known as the Children of Israel. The Arabs are regarded as the descendants of Ishmael and the Jews the descendants, or children, of Israel.
The monotheistic principle is enshrined in the Hebrew Shema, which the Prophet Moses taught his followers: Shma yisrael adonai elohenu adonai echad: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." Although Moses addressed the Children of Israel, it is a call that is in fact addressed to all humanity-that the Lord our God, the Lord is One. The human response to this call is cogently expressed in the Arabic declaration of faith (shahadah) that the Prophet Muhammad taught his followers: Ash hadu an la ilaha illallah: "I declare that there is no god but God."
The Quran regards all the prophets named in the Bible who came to announce this teaching, including Aaron, Moses, John the Baptist, and Jesus Christ, as beings completely submitted to God, thus muslim. They all were sent by God to reiterate the same message of submission to only the one God, to judge by God's standards and laws (Quran 5:44), all of which are anchored on practicing the two greatest commandments that Moses and Jesus preached and that bears repetition: to maximally love God, and to equally maximally love our fellow human beings.
After fleeing his hometown, Abraham traveled in the lands that today are called Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Arabia, and Egypt, seeking to establish a monotheistic community "under God" that lived and institutionalized these principles. It was just not possible to do that in the existing social milieus of the time. He had to start with a clean slate, in a frontier place where there were no preexisting social norms.
The story of Abraham's descendants, depicted in the biblical narratives as well as in the Quran and the Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), demonstrates the difficulties of establishing a monotheistic tradition in a world where the dominant tradition was a robust polytheism with its sociologically stratified societies.
After domestic tensions developed between Sarah and Hagar, the Egyptian mother of Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael, Abraham resolved the dispute by separating them. As we shall see later in our discussion of separation of powers, there is always an ideal distance between any two parties, which if reduced causes pain. Abraham took Hagar and their infant, Ishmael, and left them alone in a desolate valley. Muslim narratives locate this valley as present-day Mecca, in the western part of the Arabian peninsula, about forty miles inland from the eastern coast of the Red Sea. Hagar asked Abraham if it was God's will to leave them there, and when he affirmed it, she surrendered to the divine will. When her water ran out she ran to and fro between two small hillocks in search of water and miraculously discovered the well now known as Zamzam.Nomadic passersby noticed birds flying above the well and paused to check. On finding Hagar, they asked her permission to obtain water from her well, for a water well in the desert at that time was more valuable than an oil well is today, and they wouldn't presume to take Hagar's water without her consent. She gave her permission, and some of them remained with her, becoming the first inhabitants of Mecca. This is the story of how Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael founded the city of Mecca.
From time to time, Abraham would visit Hagar and Ishmael to check on their welfare. Years later, after Ishmael had grown to adulthood, Abraham returned and together with Ishmael was commanded to build there the very first temple, a simple cubical structure, the Ka'bah, devoted to the worship of the one God: "We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael, saying: Purify My House for those who visit it, those who abide there for devotion, those who bow down and those who prostrate themselves . . . and when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the House: Our Lord, accept from us; surely You are the Hearing, the Knowing. Our Lord, make us both submitted to You, and raise from our offspring a nation submitted to You; show us our rites, and turn to us in mercy. Surely You are oft-turning in mercy, the All-Merciful. Our Lord, raise up from them a Messenger from among them who shall recite to them Your messages and teach them the Book and Wisdom, and purify them. Surely You are Almighty, All-Wise" (Quran 2:125-29).
The Quran quotes Abraham as praying to God to "make this [the fledgling town of Mecca] a secure town, and grant its people fruits, such of them as believe in God and [human accountability on] the Last Day" (Quran 2:126).
As much as the Abrahamic ethic is embedded in human nature, human nature has a strong inclination to violate it. I have quoted above the Quranic criticism of contemporaries of the Prophets, ostensibly his followers, who violated its message.
The challenge of maintaining the pure monotheism and ethical principles of the Abrahamic faith required a succession of prophets to remind and restate the primordial message of Abraham. Why the reminder? Because, as the Quran says, humans are forgetful. If there is anything in the Islamic view that approximates the Christian idea of original sin, in the sense of something that can be described as the universal human flaw, it is that humans forget. It does not mean a lapse in memory as much as a lapse in applying what we know. We know better, but we do what we know to be wrong anyway-and perhaps even delight in doing it.
Generally, although we recognize the commandments we are given as ethically correct, we have a strong tendency not to follow them. And loving someone "like a brother" is not very helpful if you love your brother the way Cain loved Abel, by killing him. That's why I advise my congregation to probe the one who tells you, "I love you like a brother." The prophets understood this very well, which is why the golden rule is to love others as we love ourselves. Anything less just won't do. Knowing that loving your fellow human being as a brother or sister wasn't quite enough, and perhaps because we sometimes treat our neighbors more generously than our own siblings, the Prophet Muhammad phrased the second commandment by saying to his companions, "None of you is a believer (mu'min) until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself." Ironically, the closer we are to someone, the stronger the tension and the conflict. This certainly raises the bar. How many of us feel happiness and not envy when others succeed or when others receive something not given to us?
One factor contributing to the challenge of fulfilling the Abrahamic ethic is the difficulty humans have in understanding something unless they can relate it to themselves, individually and/or collectively. For example, the word Jesus evokes different images for different people. European Christians often depict him as blue eyed and blond haired; Mexican Christians depict him as black eyed and black haired. Obviously, Jesus could not have been both, but the point is that humans tend to create in their minds their own image of what something is; often this image is inaccurate, imposed upon the object of their understanding. If European and Mexican Christians, however, decided that this was important to the truth about Jesus and something worth fighting for, then this example would not be so harmless.
More significant issues arise in how Christians regard Jesus spiritually. Catholics regard Jesus as the "unbegotten son of God." Those who denied the divine sonship of Jesus disputed this, and until the 1600s they were burned as heretics for this difference in opinion.
When it comes to religion, each of us holds in our mind an image of what our religion and our God is. We're not that different from little Johnny, who was drawing something on the school chalkboard. His teacher asked, "What are you drawing, Johnny?" "God," he answered." "But," his teacher retorted, "nobody knows what God looks like." And Johnny proudly puffed up his chest and exclaimed, "They will after I'm done!" Because God created us in His image, we can't seem to help returning the favor, creating God in ours, and in spite of knowing that our idea does no justice to divine reality, we can't resist the urge. If someone debates us on our understanding of God, we get quite upset about it, but when prophets come to correct our understanding, we tend to treat them worse-like Abraham or Jesus, seeking to burn or crucify them as heretics.
The Quran points out this human tendency, asking, "Do you propose to teach God what your religion is? While God-Knower of all things-fathoms what is in the heavens and the earth?" (Quran 49:16).
Whereas the Prophet Muhammad was sent to revive the Abrahamic ethic in the cultural mind-set and language of the Ishmaelite branch of the children of Abraham, most people have come to regard the Prophet Muhammad's mission as conveying a different message from that of Jesus and Moses, seeing it as a distinct and separate religion.
The Quran never tires of repeating that its task is to reestablish the Abrahamic ethic and that Muhammad and all the prior prophets came to do just that: "The nearest of people to Abraham are those who follow him, and this Prophet [that is, Muhammad] and those who believe" (Quran 3:68). Islam, as we shall see later, defines itself as the latest version, or reformation, of the Abrahamic religion. It is not so much the religion of Muhammad (which is why Muslims reject the name Muhammadanism, a name given to it by outsiders), but the religion of God, originally established by Abraham, cleansed by Muhammad of pagan and polytheistic encrustations that had accrued over the intervening centuries.
To recapitulate, the Abrahamic ethic embodies the fullest and most balanced individual and social institutional expression of these two commandments whose core ideas are:
1. A radical monotheism, expressed in loving the one God with all of one's being
2. Human liberty, equality, and fraternity, expressed in loving for others what we love for ourselves (that is, social justice) and in ensuring and protecting these principles
Whenever each religious tradition, Muslim or non-Muslim, has honored these commandments, it has contributed to humanity's growth and progress. When one has failed, it has contributed to conflict and disease both within its own society and between its society and that of others.

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