Elements of Belief in the Qur’an

Fazlur Rahman

Fazlur Rahman, “Elements of Belief in the Qur’an,” inLiterature of Belief: Sacred Scripture and Religious Experience, ed. Neal E. Lambert (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1981), 79–88.

Dr. Fazul Rahman, originally from West Pakistan and a professor at the University of Chicago when this was published, served with distinction on the faculties of universities in four countries: his own Pakistan, Canada, England, and the United States. Admired and respected by his colleagues and students, he is a recognized authority on the culture and religion of Islam. His book, published in 1979, is entitled simply, Islam.

In discussing “Elements of Belief in the Qur’an,” he performed the difficult task of making an ancient, complex, and unfamiliar religion intelligible and coherent to an audience almost entirely unacquainted with it. Using the Qur’an itself as the key to understanding the Muslim world, Professor Rahman discusses the historical context for the appearance of the religion itself, Muhammad’s role as its prophet, and its key beliefs. The topics he discusses with such deceptive simplicity include the nature of God, the nature of man, the origin of evil, the relationship between the Creator and his creations, sin and salvation, individual responsibility, and collective accountability. All of these factors are organized by the two great messages of the Quran: the sovereignty of God and the need for social justice, lofty and noble ideals that have seen their working out in the hundreds of cultures that have embraced Islam.

The Qur’an, as you know, is for Muslims the revealed scripture of God. In what I am going to say to you, I will therefore try to present the general structure of the main ideas of the Qur’an.

Muhammad, the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca in northern Arabia around A.D. 570. His father had predeceased him and his mother died when he was a child. He was brought up by his uncle, Abu Talib. Mecca was a purely commercial town. The Meccans several generations back had been Bedouins in the desert; but some generations before the advent of Muhammad, they settled in this place and mediated the trade between India and the Indian Ocean and throughout the Byzantine Empire. It was, therefore, on the whole quite a prosperous community. There were in this community, however, despite its prosperity, or rather because of its commercial prosperity, certain darker sides to the picture: a fairly large-scale exploitation of the poor, of the disenfranchised, of the have-nots. There was, in short, a very considerable socioeconomic disparity.

Muhammad, just before the age of about forty, was disturbed by two problems in this city. One was the socioeconomic disparity, and the other was the Meccan polytheism. In their sanctuary, the Ka’ba, and around it there was a multiplicity of gods, usually a god representing a tribe. This polytheism therefore to Muhammad was not just polytheism; it symbolized the division of mankind into different tribes at loggerheads with one another. Socially and economically, the richer classes were exploiting the poor.

When he was disturbed, he resorted to a cave, called Hira Cave, in the north of Mecca in the mountains. It is a very small cave; I have seen it. Two men can barely sit there, or one person can lie there. Muhammad used to go to that cave and sometimes stay for long periods, in contemplation and praying to God for a solution of these problems. The echo of this disturbance and of the solution that he ultimately received from God is recorded in the early chapters of the Qur’an: “Have we not now opened up your heart [i.e., to the truth], and we have removed from you that burden which was breaking your back?” (sura [chapter] 94:1–3)

Muhammad, when he came out of his cave, summoned his fellow Meccans to accept two things: to accept one god—to discard the multiplicity of gods representing the multiplicity of tribes—and to remove the ugly socioeconomic disparity that existed in the society.

The Meccans, of course, had vested interests in both of these things because the Meccans were in charge of the pagan Arabian religions at that time. They were the priests. Therefore they rejected his call for monotheism and, of course, they rejected his invitation to social justice. A struggle ensued that lasted for twenty-three years.

Having spent ten years in Mecca where he had a small band of devoted followers who understood his message, Muhammad moved to Medina where he was invited by the Medinese.

The Qur’an is a document which is a collection of the messages that came to Muhammad during these approximately twenty-three years of his prophetic life, answering questions as they arose in the struggle. In order, therefore, to understand the Qur’an properly, it is absolutely imperative to understand first of all that background in Mecca which provoked this message in the first place, and then to understand the background of almost every passage. Without this background, the Qur’an seems to be a jumble of heterogeneous passages addressing heterogeneous questions. When people study the Qur’an as a book, they get frustrated because it is not a book in the usual sense. It is a collection of these passages. It is extraordinarily eloquent; its language is extraordinarily expressive; but in order to be understood properly, this background needs to be kept in mind.

Now with this brief introduction, let us come to what the Qur’an has to say to us. Because the Qur’anic message is also a social message, it is a message heavily laden with an invitation for socioeconomic justice. Some Western scholars have thought that the Qur’an is essentially a body of sociopolitical teaching; that it somehow, by accident, became a religion. Whatever the interpretation, the fact remains that Muhammad felt, and felt it in his inmost being, that he had been called by God.

Let us spend a few moments on this God. God is one and unique, the only being who is infinite. Everything else, everything other than God that has been created by him, is finite. The hallmark of a creature is its essential finitude. Creatures of God have potentialities, have powers to act, but nevertheless are limited and finite. When God creates a thing, at the same time he puts the law of its behavior in it. Because of this inborn law, everything fits well into the entire pattern we call the universe. The universe is, for the Qur’an, a well-knit, formally created structure in which there are no gaps, no dislocations, no ruptures. It is an extraordinarily well-built working machine, which acts or works according to the laws that God has put into it. The Qur’an, therefore, calls the universe and everything in it muslim, which is an active participle derived from the root islam and means “surrender to God’s law or to God’s will.” And because the universe obeys God’s laws that are engrained in it, the Qur’an frequently calls the whole universe muslim. Man is invited to be muslim. Whereas the rest of the universe automatically obeys God, man has been given the choice to obey or disobey. And for this obedience or disobedience, the risks and rewards are high.

The Qur’an tells the story of the creation of Adam and says that when God wanted to create Adam, God said to his angels, “I am going to put on the earth a live spirit,” and the angels did not like this. They said to God, “We glorify you and sing your praises and carry out your commands. Are you putting on the earth a creature who will sow corruption and shed blood?” God does not deny that man will sow corruption and shed blood. He simply says, “I know what you know not.” And thereafter God summons both the angels and Adam and commands the angels, “Name these things.” The angels express their inability to name things: “We only know what you have taught us. Beyond that we do not know anything.” But Adam was able to name things. (The Qur’an is quite clear that man possesses a tremendous capacity for creative knowledge whereby he is distinguished from the rest of the universe and indeed from angels.) When the angels lost the battle in this competition, God asked them to prostrate themselves to Adam and to honor him. They all did except one. That one, who refused because of sheer pride, became Satan (see sura 2:20–32). There was, therefore, no Satan before Adam appeared. Satan and Adam are coevals; they take their birth together. This points to a very deep-seated fact about human nature.

God then said to Adam and Eve, “All right, I will send you my guidance from time to time, so those of your progeny who listen to my call will be successful” (see sura 2:37–38). (The Qur’an does not use the word salvation. Its term is success.) “Those who will not listen to my call will fail; the successful will enjoy paradise and the others will burn in fire.”

Now this God who is infinite, in his infinite mercy, just as he has given laws to the universe, so has he given his law through his messengers to mankind. This is called moral law, and man is invited to accept this moral law, to be good, to be muslim. The Qur’an’s basic critique of human nature is that man is very short-sighted. He doesn’t look at the end; he looks at the immediate all the time, is extremely selfish, has a petty narrow mind and a very limited vision. When he is asked to sacrifice for the poor, he thinks he is going to be impoverished. This is Satan whispering in man’s mind. Whereas God promises prosperity in exchange for this compassion (see sura 30:38), man, because of his narrow vision, finds it very difficult to get outside of this nature that God has made.

The Qur’an insists that God is both outside nature because he is infinite and inside nature because nature is his handiwork (see sura 88:16–20). Nature is autonomous because it works through laws that were given to it by God, but it is not autocratic because it points to some infinite being beyond itself and because it is finite. God is thus both outside nature and inside nature; but man, when he is inside nature, cannot see God; he sees only nature. And because of this shortsightedness, he forgets God. When man forgets God, he forgets himself because the principle of the integrity of every being, including human beings and human societies, is God. Once God is left out, the being of man, individually and collectively, disintegrates. This is why God is necessary for man—to keep the integrity of his own being and to develop. The Qur’an complains repeatedly that it is only when natural causes fail man that he discovers God. When a ship is sailing in the sea with favorable winds and calm waters, man is liable to forget God. But when suddenly a storm brews and angry waves strike against the ship, then man remembers God. Therefore the Qur’an calls upon man essentially to remember God because it is this constant keeping in mind of something beyond him—something that has created him and that sustains him—it is this constant being on watch that will keep him intact.

The first idea that appears in the Qur’an after these two initial invitations to monotheism and social justice is the idea of the last judgment. “If you do not mend your ways,” says the Qur’an to the Meccans, “then there will be a day when you will all be called to account for your deeds. Every individual will be called to account for his or her deeds. Alone you will come to us, just as we created you alone” (see sura 34:45).

A little later, another theme appears which can be called judgment in history. The final judgment will be passed on individuals for their individual performances. But there is a judgment in this world which is passed, not on individuals as such, but on collectivities—on nations, on peoples. And the Qur’an then begins to tell and retell the stories of past nations that were destroyed when they went astray. Messengers of God had come, but they had refused to accept the messengers. God saved good people in these societies but only those who were actively good. The Qur’an asks, “Why did the virtuous and knowledgeable people in those societies not actively try to reform those societies? Why did they not actively try to call them to goodness?” (see sura 17:12). Being passively good by yourself doesn’t help. And therefore those people who were passively good were destroyed along with those who were actively bad because God does not forgive those who know what ought to be done and yet don’t do anything about it. Maybe they themselves are good, and on the day of judgment maybe they will be successful in giving account of their individual deeds. But in this judgment in history, only those people are saved who actively call others to goodness.

Now in part of the Qur’an, biblical figures appear beginning with Adam and Noah, through Abraham, through Moses, through biblical prophetic personalities to Jesus. All these men God has sent from time to time to warn people against their evildoing and to invite them to do good. These men are called prophets or messengers of Allah. But this prophetology is not entirely biblical. Certain Arabian names are associated with it. Two Arab tribes that were destroyed, the tribes of Ad and Themoud of ancient Arabia, are also constantly mentioned, and the two prophets which had been sent to them (see sura 7:63–70). The Qur’an says, “God’s guidance is not limited to Jews and to Arabs. God has been sending these messages all over the world to all peoples in all nations. There is no nation in the world to which guidance has not been given. Every people has had an invitation to goodness and a warning against evil.” It is on this ground that Muhammad and the Qur’an severely criticized the claims of Jews and Christians that they were proprietors of truth, that they were proprietors of God. The Qur’an says, “These people claim that if you want to get guidance you must become a Jew or become a Christian. But guidance is God’s guidance, not Jewish or Christian guidance. God is at work everywhere” (see sura 2:103–9, 129). His guidance is universal. And all proprietary claims to God are, in fact, negations of the divine truth. No nation, no people, no community in the world may claim exclusive rights over God. Now this message which has at its center this unique God and also this doctrine of socioeconomic justice—what is its purpose? The purpose of this endeavor, we are told, is to remove “corruption from the earth.”

Somehow after a few generations, every people begins to decay unless it keeps a very constant vigil over its state of heart and mind. Every people, after it achieves greatness and after it, as the Qur’an puts it, “inherits the earth,” begins to decay. And that is the perilous stage where it must be able to keep watch over itself. If it does not, it will go down the drain just as others have gone down the drain. The Qur’an has a long catalogue of earlier peoples who have been “harvested out.”

No nation, no people on earth has an irrevocable passport to eternal life and success. The end of man’s endeavor on earth is to reform the earth and to remove corruption from it. But here is the catch: man is a creature who is particularly liable to selfdeception. When he acts in history and thinks he is doing good, he more often than not misjudges himself. This self-deception is something on which the Qur’an spends a great deal of attention, a great deal of effort. It warns: “Whenever it is said to them, ‘Please don’t sow corruption on the earth,’ they say ‘We are only reformers’” (see sura 2:7–10). Beware, these are the corrupters of the earth, but they are not aware—they don’t know it.

The Qur’an insists that deeds have weight. We are told that this weighing of deeds comes from the commercial background of Muhammad, which is, of course, true. Mecca was a market where things were weighed. But those merchants weighed commodities, gold, and silver; they didn’t weigh deeds. Yet the Qur’an insists on the weighability of deeds. There are deeds which look very weighty to the doer but in the end have no result, are inconsequential. So the Qur’an says, “Say to them, shall I tell you of those people who are the greatest losers in terms of their deeds? These are the people whose endeavors are lost in the images of the world. They think they are achieving great deeds, that they are doing prodigies” (see sura 101:5–6; 83:1–5). It is, therefore, extremely important to be able to weigh one’s deeds.

How do I weigh my deeds? How do I know that I am not being deceived, that I am not in a mirage created by myself? The Qur’an suggests a remedy called taqwa, a state of mind every human being must cultivate. This term taqwa has been translated often into English as “fear of God,” which is not incorrect. But, you see, fear is of different types—we fear wolves, criminals fear the police—at least they used to—and children fear their parents and teachers if they are naughty—at least they used to. And a person who does wrong and then becomes aware that he has done wrong also fears. But he fears the consequences that might follow upon the wrong that he has done. Taqwa may be defined as an “inner torch” whereby a person is able to distinguish between right and wrong, provided he is also convinced that there is a criterion of judgment which lies outside him, not inside him. What he is doing will be judged, but judged by a criterion which he has not made. He must come up to the standard of this criterion of judgment. He must try. Taqwa does not guarantee that man always succeeds, but it guarantees that he will try. Without this instrument of taqwa there is no hope that man will even try to do the right. And to do the right is imperative if man is to succeed, if man has to do that which will be consequential in the long run. The Qur’an criticizes the Meccan merchants who are very proud of their wealth—their shortterm effects—but are unaware of the long-term effects, of the final ends of their lives, hence this concept of the day of judgment, whenever that day is. It becomes central to the teaching of the Qur’an. So long as man acts only on the basis of the immediate consequences, there is not much possibility of his producing deeds that will be consequential in the long run. So to cultivate taqwa, to clear the earth of corruption and to reform the earth—to create on this earth a social order based on ethically viable principles—that, in summary, seems to me to be the message of the Qur’an.