The Nature of the Quranic Teachings
Islam, like the other great religions, more particularly the other two semitic faiths, Judaism and Christianity, with whom it has much in common, bases itself on revelation.
But there is a vital distinction. The Holy Quran is a record solely of the verbal revelations received by the Holy Prophet of Islam during a period of over twenty years. It is thus, according to Muslim belief, the Very Word of God. The Holy Prophet’s own interpretation and exposition of the revelations are not set out in the Quran. These are contained in other collections.
The claim of the Quran is that it furnishes guidance on all fundamentals, whether it matters of principle, practice or vital detail, for all time. It opens up vast fields for the pursuit of knowledge and research, but the question I desire to address myself to at the outset is to what extent does it bind and regulate and what does it leave free for the exercise of discretion, experiment, trial and error? I have deliberately avoided the use of the expression “reason” in this context, lest it should give rise to misunderstanding. For, according to the Quran, Reason governs both in the realm of pure faith and in the fields of discretion and experiment. The Quran invites mankind to faith through the exercise of reason. It is full of appeals, invitations, admonitions and exhortations to “consider,” “ponder,” “reflect,” “understand.” It repeatedly draws attention to the phenomena of nature and invites the “people of understanding and wisdom” to reflect upon the “signs” contained therein and to draw lessons from them. For instance, the Holy Prophet was commanded and through him, of course, the Muslims:
Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the way that is best. Surely thy Lord knows the best who has strayed from His path and He knows those who are rightly guided. (XVI.126)
The way to guidance is through wisdom and understanding:
God grants wisdom to whom He pleases, and whoever is granted wisdom has indeed been granted abundant good; and none would be reminded save those endowed with understanding. (II.270)
As an illustrations of these admonitions and exhortations let me draw attention to the following:
And one of His Signs is this, that He has created mates for you from among yourselves that you may find peace of mind in them and He has put love and tenderness between you. In that surely are signs for a people who will reflect. (XXX.22)
And among His Signs is the creation of the Heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors. In that surely are signs for those who possess knowledge. (XXX.23)
And among His Signs is your sleep by night and day, and your seeking of His bounty. In that surely are signs for a people who hear.(XXX.24)
And one of His Signs is this, that He shows you the lightning as a source of fear and hope, and He sends down water from the sky, and quickens therewith the earth after its death. In that surely are signs for a people who understand. (XXX.25)
God it is who has subjected to you the oceans that ships may sail thereon by His command, and that you may seek his bounty, and that you may be grateful. And He has subjected to you whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is in the earth: all this is from Him. In that surely are signs for a people who reflect. (XIV.12-13)
This is a Book We have revealed to thee, full of blessings, that they may reflect over it verses and that those gifted with understanding may take heed. (XXVIII.30)
Instances could be multiplied, but these should suffice:
Thus the question I have posed is not what is governed and regulated by Revelation and what is left to Reason. The question is what is governed and regulated by Revelation (the truth of which Reason has affirmed) and what is left to discretion and experiment.
The Quran itself makes that distinction:
O children of Adam: if Messengers come to you from among yourselves, rehearsing My Signs unto you, then who so shall fear God and do good, on them shall come no fear nor shall they grieve. (VII.36)
On the other hand, there is the admonition:
Ye who believe do not enquire concerning matters on which directions given to you might prove burdensome to you … God has left them out. God is most Forgiving, Forbearing. A people before you asked about such things, but then they became disbelievers therein. (V.102-103)
Thus we have the truth emphasized that Divine guidance is always completely beneficent and must, therefore, be followed, but that we must not seek to restrict the sphere of speculation, discretion and experimentation.
In fundamentals the harm resulting from the adoption of an injurious or wrong course may be irremediable or very far-reaching. Concerning such matters guidance has been furnished in the Revelation. Even that guidance is not more rigid than is absolutely essential for the organization of human society on a beneficent pattern and for the regulation of human conduct in conformity with such a pattern. In most matters the ordinances of the Shariat possess the healthy quality of elasticity. It is the sophists and the jurists who have sought to make them unduly rigid. But outside these limits Muslims are not only left free to exercise their discretion and to apply the lessons of experience and observation, but are constantly and repeatedly exhorted to do so.
Take the important matter of what has come to be known as a Constitution, that is the fundamental law governing and regulating the political, executive, legislative, and judicial functions of the State. The Quran has laid down the fundamental principles with great emphasis, but has left it to the people concerned to make them effective in accordance with their own needs, requirements, limitations, and circumstances.
The fundamental principles are thus expressed:
God commands you that you entrust political authority to those who are best capable of discharging this trust and that when you are called upon to judge between the people you judge with justice and equity. Surely excellent is that with which God admonishes you. God is All- Hearing, All-Seeing. (IV.59)
Several principles are clearly deducible from this emphatic injunction. First, that under God, sovereignty rests with the people. It is for the people to entrust various aspects of political authority into the hands of persons who are deemed most capable of carrying them into effect. Attention is thus drawn to the very important principle that the exercise of the franchise and the performance of the functions of representation and of executive and judicial office are all in the nature of a sacred trust and must be approached and carried out in that spirit. This exhortation at once lifts politics from the arena of controversy, conflict, and sordid manoeuvre into the exalted sphere of a moral and spiritual function. The proper exercise of the franchise is the key to the successful working of democracy. This is emphasized in mandatory language in the Quran.
Next, the independence and integrity of the judicial office is stressed. I have had occasion recently to put together my ideas on “The Concept of Justice in Islam” in an article. I need not enlarge upon the subject here.
The verse then goes on to caution the Muslims that they may be tempted from time to time to depart from these principles, but that they would do well always to adhere to them as “God’s admonition furnishes the best guidance.”
Finally, there is the warning that God is All-Hearing, All-Seeing. He is always on the watch. He hears the cry of the afflicted and the oppressed and watches the conduct of all His creatures. We must not expect to enjoy the benefits of a system we do not practice, nor can we hope to escape the consequences and penalties flowing from wrongdoing, especially in connection with the discharge of so sacred a trust as the benign and benevolent governance of His creatures and making provision for their true welfare and their constant progress and advancement.
In addition to laying down principles and furnishing guidance the Quran makes provision for the training of Muslims in the exercise of these functions. The Holy Prophet was exhorted to make his decisions after consultation with and seeking advice from representative Muslims.
It is by the great mercy of God that thou (i.e., the Prophet) art kind towards them, and if thou hadst been rough and hard-hearted they would surely have dispersed from around thee. So forbear and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in matters of administration; and when thou hast determined the matter, then put thy trust in God. Surely God loves those who put their trust in Him. (III.160)
Mutual consultation and advice is described in the Quran as a characteristic of the Muslims:
Those who harken to their Lord and observe Prayer, and whose affairs are decided by mutual consultation, and who spend out of whatsoever We have provided for them. (XLII.39)
It was this system and this training which converted so many unlettered and untutored dwellers of the desert into such efficient executives and administrators in so short a time in the early years of Islam. Of much greater importance, however, than these fundamental principles of constitution, etc., is today question: “What is the kind of society that Islam seeks to set up?”
The answer to the question I have just posed can run into great length. I shall confine myself to a brief outline for the benefit of the average Westerner. The scholar already knows a great deal more about these matters than I can lay pretension to. Our purpose in these discussions, I conceive, is not so much to stimulate scholarship and research as to promote better understanding of the values that, in the last resort, and particularly in a period of stresses and crises, are likely to influence the thought and conduct of the average person.
The central fundamental point or doctrine, if you prefer the expression, in Islam is the Unity of God. Everything else, as you say here, stems from that. God is One: He is also Unity. All else proceeds from Him and depends upon Him for support, sustenance, and advancement.
All mankind are His creatures and servants. Islam recognizes no kind of privilege based upon race, family, color, office, wealth, etc. The only badge of nobility, as it were, is the degree of righteousness of a person’s life.
O mankind, We have created you from man and woman:
And We have made you peoples and tribes that you may recognize one another more easily. Verily, the most honorable among you in the sight of God, is he who is most righteous among you. Surely, God is All- Knowing, All-Aware. (XLIX.14)
There is a fundamental unity in the Universe, and all this stresses the control and power of God.
Man and the Universe have been created with a purpose. (XLV.23 and XLVI.4)
The Quran stresses that man as such (not any particular man or group) is God’s Vicegerent upon earth. (II.30-31; VI.166)
The universe and all that is in it has been made subservient to man. (XLV.13-14)
The opens out a vast field for research and the pursuit of knowledge, for the benefit of all mankind.
As Islam does not recognize any classes, nor any privilege based upon any class distinctions, its economic and social values are all designed to establish in practice the brotherhood of man on a basis of equality and dignity. In fact, mankind are warned that if they will not cultivate true love for each other and practice sincere brotherhood, they may be pushed to the “brink of a pit of fire.”
Remember the favour of God which He bestowed upon you when you were enemies and He united your hearts in love, so that by His grace you became as brothers: and you were on the brink of a pit of fire and He saved you from it. Thus does God explain to you His Signs that you may be guided. (II.104)
In the social sphere, Islam has sought to emphasize the spirit of brotherhood and equality by instituting and insisting upon simple standards and dispensing with formality and ceremonial.
Liquor and all intoxicants, all well as gambling, are prohibited and moderation is enjoined in the matter of food and drink. It is pointed out that the use of intoxicants and indulgence in gambling would foster enmity and hatred and neglect of prayer and remembrance of God. (V.91-92)
Eat and drink and be moderate, He loves not the immoderate. (VII.32)
The Muslims in their “golden age,” if the use of the expression may be permitted, have not always adhered to the spirit of Islamic injunctions and teachings in this regard. Nevertheless, social intercourse in Islamic society has throughout been perfectly easy and free and a consciousness of brotherhood and equality has always been kept alive. The purely religious ordinances of Islam have largely helped to keep this consciousness alive. The five daily services in the Mosques, where no discrimination of any sort is permitted, for instance, by way of allotment of seats or pews and access is open to all alike, the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca where all pilgrims are uniformly clad in two white sheets, the annual fast extending over a month with its uniform discipline, attend in the same direction.
It is perhaps in the economic sphere that in the present age the values sought to be inculcated by Islam would arouse the keenest interest.
Islam starts from the fundamental fact that the original sources of wealth, the earth and its capacities and treasures, the sun, moon, the stars, the atmosphere, clouds, rain, etc., are the gifts of God to all mankind and have been subordinated to man and subjected to his service. There can, therefore, be no property in them.
Wealth is produced by the application of knowledge and skill to, and the utilization of, these sources. This involves the use of skill, capital, and labor. The wealth produced in consequence is, therefore, divisible not only between skill, capital, and labor, but must also by shared by the community as a whole, as legatees of God’s bounties which are the original sources of all wealth. This share of the community is recovered through a capital levy called the ZAKAT. The root of the word is ZAKKA, i.e., “he purified,” or “he fostered.” This levy has both characters. By separating the share of the community it purifies the rest and makes the rest lawful for division between skill, capital, and labor. The proceeds of this levy are to be devoted towards purposes designed to foster the welfare of the community; e.g., the relief of poverty and distress, the provision of public works for the benefit of the community at large, the maintenance of scholars and research workers and those who devote themselves to the service of man, the provision of capital for those who possess useful skills but lack the necessary capital to put them into practice, etc.
The Quran indicates the purposes of the Zakat in:
Take out of their wealth alms so that thou mayest through it purify them and foster their welfare. (IX.103)
The Prophet himself has indicated the character of the Zakat in the words:
An alms that is levied on the well-to-do and is returned to those in need.
It is a legal levy imposed by the State and is to be distinguished from public and private charity to which the Muslims are repeatedly and emphatically exhorted in the Quran.
With regard to the use and application of wealth, Islam aims at the widest possible distribution and constant circulation. The Zakat just referred to is one of the means of securing such distribution and circulation. The emphasis on public and private charity is another. (IV.37-41; II.262-275)
But there are other ordinances designed with the same object.
Hoarding of wealth, Kanz, and holding back, Bukhl, are mostly severely condemned as heinous sins entailing the defeat of their own purpose and powerful penalties (IX.34-35; CIV; IV.37-38). The freest and widest application of wealth, talent, knowledge, etc. “in the way of God”, i.e., in the service of man, are insisted upon as an indispensible means of promoting falah, .i.e., individual and national prosperity.
Behold, you are those who are called upon to spend in the way of God, and of you there are some who hold back, but whoso holds back is being miserly only against his own self. God is Self-Sufficient, it is you who are needy. If you turn away, He will bring in your stead a people other than you. Then they will not be like you. (XLVII.39)
But extravagance is forbidden, for extravagance leads man into evil company and the misuse of God’s bounties.(XVII. 28) It is spending “in the way of God,” to win God’s favor, that is enjoined. Indeed it is pointed out that in the substance of the well to do the needy have a share to which they are entitled.
In their wealth was a share for those who could express their needs and those who could not. (LI.20)
So give to the kinsman his due and to the needy, and to the wayfarer. That is best for those who seek the favour of God. It is they who will prosper. (XXX.39)
Interest is prohibited: it restricts circulation, accumulates wealth in a few hands and fosters wars. (II.276-280)
Trade, commerce, partnership, joint stock companies, and other commercial ventures and activities are not restricted. The principle is that a person may invest his money in any legitimate venture which puts wealth into circulation, promotes employment, and fosters the welfare of the community. What is prohibited is a transaction the essence of which is that one person advances money or makes a loan in kind with a stipulation that he must receive a fixed return for the use of the money or the community lent, irrespective of what may happen to the subject matter of the loan. So long as the transaction is one which is designed to foster the welfare of the community through the circulation of wealth and the promotion of industry or commerce, and the person participating in it by way of investing money (or goods as the case may be) accepts the risk of loss and becomes entitled also to share in the profits, there is no objection.
Another device aimed at breaking up accumulations of property or wealth and securing a wide distribution is the Islamic system of inheritance. While a person is alive and in good health, he may dispose of his property as he may choose, subject to the moral principles of charity and beneficence inculcated by Islam. His power of bequest, however, is strictly limited. He may by Will dispose of no more than a maximum of one-third of his property and may direct its distribution for charity or otherwise through testamentary disposition. The remaining two- thirds or a larger share, after the testamentary dispositions have been satisfied, must be distributed among his heirs in specified shares. Under the Islamic law of inheritance, the number of heirs is apt to be quite numerous. Should a man die leaving him surviving father, mother, widow, sons and daughters, everyone of them would be an heir and would receive a prescribed share in the inheritance. Among the same category of heirs, there is no preference, nor is there any such discrimination as, for instance, the law of primogeniture. Men and women are all heirs, though for the reason to be stated immediately, a woman’s share is generally one-half of a man’s share in the same degree of heirs. The reason for this is that under the Islamic social and economic systems, the whole responsibility for the maintenance of the family rests upon the father and not upon the mother. Even should it happen, as is sometimes the case, that the mother has a larger income in her own right than the father, the legal responsibility for the maintenance of the family rests upon the father. The mother is under no legal obligation to make any contribution towards the family expenses.
The Islamic system of inheritance thus breaks up wealth in each generation. The object is that a large number should receive a small competence rather than that a single heir, or a small number, should inherit wealth in large quantities. It does not, however, follow that small parcels of land or real estate must be divided between all the heirs. The State is free to make any regulation which would restrict the subdivision of property through inheritance while safeguarding the legal title of each heir to receive his or her share in cash or in some other form.
Islam recognizes individual ownership and private property and gives it full legal protection. It does not `restrict’ wealth, but regulates the modes of its acquisition and the purposes to which it must or may be applied.
In other words, it recognizes a certain degree of ownership in the individual. It permits its use and enjoyment within certain limits. It makes ownership a sort of stewardship to be administered and discharged as a trust.
Each one of you is a steward (lit.: a shephard) and is accountable for his charge. (The Prophet SAW)
Islam recognizes and indeed stresses the diversity of talents, skills, initiative, enterprise, etc. And consequently of earnings and rewards and a disparity of wealth and worldly means. (XVI.72) In fact, a certain diversity is part of the purpose of life. Like all other limitations and qualifications Islam seeks to employ this diversity for the purpose of promoting social co-operation on a beneficent basis.
Co-operate with each other in virtue and righteousness and do not co- operate in sin and transgression and fear God. Verily God is severe in chastisement.
It is through such co-operation and not through coveting what others excel in, that healthy progress is to be achieved. (IV.33)
Islam takes note of and encourages the spirit of competition but seeks to divert it into wholly beneficent channels:
Everyone has a goal which dominates him: Vie then, with one another in good deeds. (II.149)