Unity in Diversity
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
(Updated Dec 16, 2016)
This winter I will participate as a presenter in an interfaith symposium, which I have been a part of for many years now. I look forward to this gathering and feel blessed to experience it with my family. I am especially grateful that my eight year old daughter has the opportunity to sit and be with people of other religious traditions around the breakfast and dinner table. All of the conversations that we have been able to have with teachers of different traditions has given us many treasured experiences - many moments of laughter and joy.
In fact last year I had the great blessing of spending time with Imam Jamal Rahman, author of Spiritual Gems of Islam. After experiencing his class, I was inspired to get his book. I read it over a period of a couple of months following the symposium. I would read it right before bed because quotes from the Qur'an, explained by Imam Jamal, brought me an incredible amount of peace. This quote opened my heart, and showed me a new perspective on the Muslim practice of prayer:
"Bow in Adoration and Draw Closer." (Qur'an 96:19)
In my Sikh spiritual practice, we also have the act of bowing integrated into our practice. Reading this, helped me to deepen my experience immensely, with the act of bowing bringing me closer to the Divine within my heart. In fact, I believe that when we allow ourselves to be inspired by each other, we come into an incredible place of strength.
"To each of you We prescribed a law and an open way." (Qur'an 5:48)
Imam Jamal explains that this verse continues on to describe that we were never meant to be one community, with one religious perspective. In fact, God created diversity and in the end it will all become clear as the Qur'an explains:
"The goal of you all is (strive to reach) to God; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which ye dispute." (Qur'an 5:48)
I feel that in these times, reaching across our religious divides into a place of unity has never been more important. How easily we can separate ourselves and misunderstand each other. I would like to put out this prayer and intention and invite you to join me especially as we see hateful rhetoric towards Muslims increase in the United States.
Let us stand with the millions of peaceful Muslims in our world. In prayer, word or deed, let us recognize and connect with these peaceful people. In this connection, we will not be subject to the whims of the radicals on either side.
In the words of Yogi Bhajan - we sing with so much love.
"We are the people, the people of love, let us people love today."
I have never understood these words so deeply, as I do today.
You are welcome to join us in the Bahamas. However, there is much work to be done in each of our hometowns. Let our interfaith communities stand together, as peaceful, and loving people.
The Sivananda Bahamas Ashram has a vision to serve as a beacon of light in the world as a gathering place for learning and the exchange of ideas and experiences that impact individuals and the world in important ways. Our family has been happily returning there to teach for the past 10 years. This year we are doing two events at the ashram:
Unity in Diversity - Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s Symposium
December 22, 2016 - Jan 2, 2017
Heart of the Universe - Chanting with Snatam Kaur
December 25 - 27, 2016
1. Rahman, Imam Jamal, Spiritual Gems of Islam, page 107, 144
Painting by Seva Kaur, Mahan Kaur and Sewa Kaur
Sat Naam - We received an email after we posted this blog asking a very good question about some of the verses in the Qur'an encouraging violence against all of those from other faiths. The reader wished to remain anonymous. We reached out to Imam Jamal and asked him to help us answer this question. This also inspired us to do a live-stream video and question and answer with Imam Jamal which will be on Tuesday Dec 20 at 5pm PST right on Snatam's Facebook page. The event is free, and all you need to do is have a Facebook account and like her page.
Below are some of the verses the reader asked about, followed by Imam Jamal's response.
Qur’an (2:191-193) - "And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah [disbelief or unrest] is worse than killing... but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah [disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah] and worship is for Allah alone. But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimun(the polytheists, and wrong-doers, etc.)"(Translation is from the Noble Qur'an)
Qur’an (5:33) - "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement"
Qur’an (8:12) - "I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them"
Qur’an (9:30) - "And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah; and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah; these are the words of their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved before; may Allah destroy them; how they are turned away!"
Qur’an (9:73) - "O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the destination."
Qur’an (8:67) - "It is not for a Prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he had made a great slaughter in the land..."
Below is the response to these questions about quotes from the Qur’an by Imam Jamal Rahman:
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to these questions.
There are three general points I would like to make before getting into specifics.
First, every holy book contains two kinds of verses- particular and universal. The former is in need of historical and textual context but the latter is timeless, placeless and filled with wisdom. Problems arise when a particular verse is advocated as a universal verse.
Thus, for example, there is a verse in the Qur’an not to trust Jews and Christians for “they are but friends and protectors to one another.” (5:51) Historically, this verse was revealed at a time in the 7th century when the embryonic Muslim community needed military alliances with Jewish and Christian tribes to survive onslaughts by the vastly superior Quraish tribe and their allies. According to Muslims, these Jewish and Christian tribes sometimes wavered on their commitments depending on how the battle was faring. This particular verse is addressed to those tribes and is not a categorical condemnation of all Jews and Christians. Just a few lines later is a universal verse affirming the goodness of other believers: “Those who believe in the Qur’an, those who follow the Jewish Scriptures, and the Sabians, and the Christians-any who believe in God and the last Day, and work righteousness-on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (5:69).
Second, it is important not to “cherry pick” verses without at least relating it to prior and subsequent verses. We actually get a fuller sense of a revelation if we have studied the holy book as a whole. A little knowledge in the case of revelations is unhelpful.
Lastly and equally significant is the need to know the circumstances in which the revelation was sent down. Again, this will give us a more complete picture of what the revelation wants us to know and learn.
The person asking these deep questions has quoted part of 2:191-193 but we get a better understanding if we include prior and subsequent verses: “Fight in the way of God those who fight you,” the Qur’an says, “but begin not hostilities; God does not like the aggressor,” (2:190) and, “but if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression… and know that Allah is with those who restrain themselves.” (2:193-194)
These verses were revealed when the Prophet Muhammad and his small community fled from persecution by the Quraish tribe in Mecca to the sanctuary of Medina. The Prophet had incurred the wrath of the Quraish tribe because he insisted on preaching the oneness of God and repeatedly criticized the authorities for their social injustices against the poor and marginalized, especially slaves, orphans, widows and divorcees. The Quraish tribe was determined to decimate the tiny Muslim community in Medina. These verses gave Muslims permission to fight but only in self-defense. The Qur’an is explicit: “Permission to fight is given only to those who have been oppressed…who have been driven from their homes for saying ‘God is our Lord.’” (22:39)
The insistence that the Qur’an encourages Muslims to kill non-Muslims is false. This sad and unfortunate misperception is in direct conflict with a preponderance of verses celebrating pluralism and diversity. “Let there be no compulsion in religion,” (2:256) says the Qur’an, and further explains that God could easily made all of humanity “one single people,” but instead created us in beautiful diversity so that we might “vie, then, with one another in doing good works!” (5:48) and “come to know one another” (49:13). The holy book asks, “Will thou then compel humankind against their will, to believe?” and emphasizes that no matter how much one disapproves of the other’s religion, the Muslim is commanded to live and let live: “To you be your Way, and to me mine” ( 109:6). The Qur'an clearly states that that entrance to heaven depends not on gender or religious affiliation but on doing “righteous deeds” (4:124 and 5:69) Except when in mortal danger at the hands of an enemy, Muslims are commanded to repel evil with something better, so that an enemy becomes an intimate friend(41:34).
All of this is not to deny that Muslims and non-Muslims have misused particular Qur’anic verses to suggest that Islam advocates fighting non-Muslims until they convert. Some Islamic scholars put forth this minority view during the height of the Crusades. They developed a doctrine of partitioning the world into two spheres, the House of Islam and the House of War, with the former in conflict with the latter. It is critical to assert, as the majority of jurists explain, that this view is contrary to what the Qur'an or the Prophet teaches.
Verse 8:12 in the Qur'an refers to the battle of Badr in 624 C.E., perhaps the most pivotal battle in the history of Islam. The small and ill armed army of the Prophet faced off the well-equipped and immensely superior forces of the Quraish, who were determined to annihilate the Muslim community. The verse asks Muslims to have faith in God and fight with courage and tenacity. If the cause is just, God will help in mysterious and invisible ways by sending the inspiration of a “thousand angels rank upon rank” (8:9). Muslims consider the victory of Badr a miracle of God.
In verse 9:73, “unbelievers and hypocrites” refer to enemies in the Quraish tribe and their allies including some who converted to Islam in order to gain military secrets and subvert the community.
According to scholars, “those who wage war against God and His Messengers,” in 5:33 refers to crimes of armed robbery, assault, rape, murder, particularly of innocent travelers along the road. The Qur'an sanctions “eye for an eye” punishment but reiterates that forgiveness and waiver of punishment is always the better course. (5:45).
8:67 is mistranslated according to Arabic scholars. The proper translation is as follows:
“It is not fitting for a Prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land.”
This verse was revealed when the Prophet discussed with his companions about whether it was morally permissible to ransom the seventy prisoners captured in the battle of Badr. The battle was not fought for material gain or military glory but for a just cause of self-defense. A subsequent verse allowed the Prophet to gain ransom in exchange of the prisoners:
“Had it not been for a previous ordainment from Allah, a severe penalty would have reached you for the ransom that ye took. But now enjoy what ye took in war, lawful and good: but fear Allah: for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (8:68-69)
Verse 9:30 is critical of some Jews and Christians who deified their rabbis and monks. The subsequent verse (9:31) says, “They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords apart from God, as well as the Messiah, son of Mary, though they were only commanded to worship one God. There is no god but He! Glory be to Him above the partners they ascribe.”
The Qur’an is eager to tell humankind that even though we may argue over our definition of God, in essence God is One for all of humanity. In a telling verse, God instructs Muslims not to argue with Jews and Christians “otherwise than in a most kindly manner… and say…our God and your God is one and the same, and it is unto Him that we all surrender ourselves (29:46).
I would like to conclude with advice from the 13th century sage Rumi: “The Qur’an is like a shy bride. Do not approach her directly. Approach her through her friends.”
Friends are mystics and sages who have unlocked mysteries of the holy book. They abound in Islam. Befriend a mystic like Rumi, Hafiz or Ibn Arabi. Then, graduate to a book which discusses “selected verses“ of the Qur’an. Finally, pick up a copy of the Qur’an. I recommend “The Study Qur’an” edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. The book contains extensive explanatory notes.