Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | September 29, 2008

A Checkerboard Effect in Religion

I have been thinking about one of my statements in a former post – about Sayyid Qutb viewing the Shari’ah as the Divine Law.  I said that it went counter to his earlier statements, and counter to Islam, which does not accept any divinity but God’s.  Now I am wondering if Muslims consider the Shari’ah divine much like the Christians consider the Bible as God’s Word, capital “W.”  If so, I have some regret over it.

Actually, because I am reading the Qur’an, and because of my reading of Qutb, I have some unexpected notions of a God-centered utopia of sorts.  What a world it would be if all people just tried to know God and were led by him to do the right thing for each other?  And what can be wrong with thinking about it, even if it’s inspired by someone like Qutb?

Though such a utopia isn’t what we have.  Nor do I think it can be accomplished entirely through one religion or the other, as Qutb claims.  Nor do I think it makes sense to try to create a new religion that tries to harmonize all our present religions.

Each religion requires beliefs in certain tenets which are not shared by the other religions.  Islam, for instance, believes in Christ’s virgin birth and resurrection but not in the crucifixion!  Christianity believes in the deity of Christ, which Islam abhores.  Very likely, Judaism believes things not shared by Christianity or Islam.

These things divide us and become articles of contention.  They are like a checkerboard in which we can land on some spaces but not others.  And it makes it difficult for some to participate without denying some personal belief of their own.

All the same, our differences don’t have to lead to violence and hatred, if we learn to expect and accept those differences.  If we know about those differences beforehand, perhaps it will be easier for us to interact with one another with discretion.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from joining a religion or a local religious community.  I think those who do will learn a lot, and the advantages of belonging to a community are great.  You will learn things you will never regret learning and meet people you will never regret meeting.  My advice is to go for as long as you can.  And if, for some reason, it does not work out, take what you’ve learned and put it into your own “personal practice.”

The point is, we still need people who live between the faiths.  People who can act as the glue.  People who will try to understand, and tolerate, and even correct.

And we need people within all the religions to learn about religions different from their own.  Not just to argue with, but to learn, to understand, to tolerate, and to find the really basic things that they have in common.  (Jesus said something like this when he talked about “the weightier provisions of the law.” – Matthew 23:23)

We also need to try to understand those who do not believe.  Atheists have more to say than most would like to admit.  The poet, Samuel Coleridge, once wrote, “Not one man in a thousand has the strength of mind or the goodness of heart to be an atheist.” (1)

And if “there is no compulsion in religion,” as it says in the Qur’an, then all these things should be obvious.

I watched a program tonight on C-SPAN.  It featured Karim Sadjadpour who gave some good insights into today’s Iran.  The last question of the segment involved a man who said he thought the Bush administration was trying to alienate the different ethnic groups in Iran from each other in an effort to defeat Iran’s Islamist government.

The different ethnic groups in Iran have coexisted for many hundreds of years.  Iran even has a sizeable Jewish population.  Mr. Sadjadpour said that if such efforts were being made to cause division in Iran that it was “unconscionable.”

My sentiments also.  Many such minority communities have existed in the Middle East since early times.(2)  There used to be a sizeable Jewish population in Iraq before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.(3)  Now almost all the Jews have fled to Israel.  These minority populations are a testament to an earlier, more structured, and probably more tolerant time.  It was a time when if you were not of my particular group, you might be different, but you still had a right to exist.

What does that tell us about the times we are living in, when communities of such great age and richness cannot coexist?  And what does it tell us about where we’re headed in this new century of ours?  Certainly not towards a utopia!


(1) Quoted in The Great Thoughts, edited by George Seldes, p. 87.

(2) McClatchy article on the Christians of Iraq.

(3) Wikipedia article on “The History of the Jews in Iraq.”


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