Friday, October 19, 2012

Reading the Quran: Nonviolence

Given the popular view of Islam among many Americans, the idea of nonviolence as a Muslim virtue might seem something of a stretch.  Shaped by media inputs, our collective consciousness is filled with images of enraged mobs, Kalashnikovs, and smouldering ruins.

Read in snippets here and there, the underlying ethical paradigm of the Quran can also seem..err...a little on the truculent side.  There is much talk of war, and the repetition of metings-out of both physical and theological punishment for infractions can get a little overbearing.

A fair reading of the Quran, however, will discover that those bloodier/more vengeful bits are leavened by calls for hospitality, justice, and charity.  For those who embrace the principles of nonviolence, however, there's more to it than simply finding a balance between interests.

Nonviolence is not equitable.  It does not focus on finding the perfect balance between competing interests.  It is also not passive.  Passivity in the face of hatred, injustice, and oppression is not nonviolence.

It is vigorously, firmly, and directly restorative.  It is the pressing out of grace into the world.   Morally, it is rooted in the Golden Rule, but it goes further.   It does not fold up in the face of abuse, but positively affirms our radical connectedness to one another, and defies brokenness with active steps towards healing.

And in reading the Quran itself, the Golden Rule is never directly articulated.   It can be inferred from certain commands to be forgiving, and to be equitable, but an explicit statement of compassion as the highest governing principle of sentient beings is just not there.

That is not true for Islam as a whole.  The Hadiths...the semi-canonical stories of the Prophet Muhammed's life...have direct and explicit reference to that highest ethic.  But again, up until my reading of the Quran, I have not been able to find anything  in the most authoritative text of Islam.

This has been a source of some spiritual challenge for me as I've explored Islam.  The ethos of radical, transforming love of both neighbor and enemy is absolutely central to Christian understandings of what is Good with a capital Gee, and that in my prior explorations I've found only tangential reference has been...well...difficult.

Because if it is not there, the Ruh is not there.  That Love is the evidence of God's presence.

But in this reading, I encountered a little story about violence that seemed...for a bright moment or capture the essence of nonviolence.   The Prophet Muhammed was fond of retelling the ancient stories of Torah.   It's a regular staple of the suras.

And in Al Mai'dah 27-32, there is a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, that most primal act of human violence.  It's not exactly the version of the story that we hear in Torah...but the Quranic retellings almost never are.

What was most interesting about this retelling was that it included the response of Abel to Cain's raging, murderous intent.  Abel knows his life is in jeopardy, but affirmatively refuses to respond violently to Cain.  He tells Cain that he will not meet violence with violence, instead affirming that real justice lies with God, whose law and power makes them as one.   In harming me, you harm yourself and your connection to your Creator, says the Quranic Abel.  He stands firm in this, even to the point of death.

Honestly, I wish it had left off there, because in that story lies the essence of nonviolence.

But the Quran goes on, and as it does so, it subverts the story with an explication of how to deal with those who war against the faith (Al Mai'dah 33).  This involves killing, crucifying, and maiming...or if you're lucky, being driven from the land.   It's not the best transition.

This illuminates the primal and essential challenge for approaching and interpreting Quran:  the issue of fundamentalism.   And it is to this that I will turn in my next post.