Sunday, 4 August 2013

Containing God and Sabotaging the Competition

In the last few days, I've seen an image making the rounds in Muslim circles and I haven't been able to get it out of my mind. The image shows a table which compares the presence of violent words in the Bible and contrasts that with examples from the Quran with the latter having significantly fewer violent words. I was troubled by the use of this image for several reasons. I want to look at why this particular image is problematic and then focus on the broader implications of these types of comparisons.

The first problem is that all of these words have been taken out of context. For all we know these violent words could be part of verses like 'Thou shalt NOT kill' or 'Do NOT fear the Lord.' It also ignores the fact that Jesus' (pbuh) radical message in the New Testament was to show unconditional love towards the marginalized, the poor, and even people we don't particularly like (like tax collectors!). And considering that we live in a post-9/11 world, Muslims should know all too well the problems of religious texts being taken out of context.

Secondly, on a practical note, the Bible is far bigger than the Quran. Playing the numbers game is like entering a competition where the Bible has one hand tied behind its back. 

It's also worth noting that the written styles of both texts are completely different. The Bible is more narrative driven than the Quran. This means that it features a lot of battles and it goes without saying that these will include violent language. The Quran doesn't have these to the same extent because most of the battles in Islamic history tend to be included in later commentaries, hadiths and historical reports.

The Quran also comes with the expectation that the reader already has an awareness of the events in the Torah and the Bible. It wasn't written in a vacuum and is incredibly intertextual. The Quran features many passing references to Biblical stories but doesn't elaborate on them much in terms of detail. You'll often come across passages like, 'do you remember this event? It was significant because...' or you'll find an account of a Biblical event has been slightly modified.

The most important concern for me is though is that such images do a great disservice to both religions. It’s an attempt to boost the image of Islam, not based on its own merits, but by bringing another religion down. 

Let’s imagine this debate in another context. Imagine a pair of politicians engaged in a political debate. Both decide to adopt negative campaigns to undermine the authority of the other. They hurl insults at one another and pick holes in each other’s arguments. By the end of the debate, the audience has learned very little. They have no idea what each party stands for and leave the debate with a deep distrust for both individuals because they didn't present themselves in a positive way. 

A negative campaign suggests that you have nothing good or worthwhile to say about your own beliefs. The same logic applies to describing your personal faith which should be done based on how it affects your personal and spiritual life for the better. If someone is comfortable with their own personal belief system, there should be no need to discredit another's. 

Unfortunately, religions with a heavy focus on evangelism such as Islam and Christianity often regard the other religion as the ‘opposition.’ This approach means that we forget the purpose of religion – to allow us to enter into a personal relationship with God. 

This brings to mind something that historian Reza Aslan said in the aftermath of the now infamous Fox interview. Many interviews have come to light where Reza speaks about interfaith relationships and his experience of being in an interfaith marriage himself. One particular quote resonated with me when he said, 

'Religion is a language made up of symbols and metaphors which help you define, to yourself and to others, the ineffable experience of faith'

Here, Reza suggests that religion is used for self definition and as a way of presenting our personal experience of the Divine to the world. This can be related to a statement by Bishop John Shelby Spong who claimed that religion is our human attempt to organize and contain God in a way which we can humanly comprehend. He expanded on this idea in controversial comments that he made in 2006.

“The idea that the truth of God can be bound in any human system, any human creed, in any human book, is almost beyond comprehension for me. I mean, God is not a Christian! God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honour my tradition. I walk through my tradition. But I don’t believe my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God."

You may agree with some, all or none of these ideas. But at the very least, I hope they've made you sit up and think about how we define religion and, by extension, ourselves.

Each individual has to find God in their own way, whether they believe God to be a divine entity or something more personal like a sense of inner peace. For me, my way of approaching God is through Islam but mine is not the only way to reach God. It just works for me. 

God is too vast for any one of us to have a perfect concept of Him, and so we should be careful to avoid criticizing the belief of another who is just as human as we are. Once we extract ourselves from the idea that there is one correct way to reach God, we’re better able to understand each other and the task of fostering positive relationships between different faiths becomes so much easier. 

We are then able to recognize that we're all trying to achieve the same goal – we are trying to make sense of the world around us in order "to help us walk into the mystery of God.”

What are your thoughts on the issues raised in this article?
How do you respond positively to negative arguments about your faith?


  1. Beautiful...I discovered your blog a few days ago and have been very inspired by it–your profoundly spiritual commitment to Islam and to the idea of respecting and being inspired by a broader religious-cultural pluralism. You really are a shining light. We need more of you in every religion, culture, and nationality– you really do illustrate how commitment to one practice doesn't mean debasing another nor assuming (wrongly) that one can't find insipiration elsewhere to deepen one's own beliefs and practices. Really, thanks so much for your work. Silvia

  2. Excellent! I enjoyed reading this Sara.

  3. Right on point! Loving your posts! Keep it up!
    Ramadan Mubarak :)

  4. Wow - Great Post today! - I didn't like this poster you mention, I saw it on FB the other day too!

  5. Thank-you Sara for helping us to strech our minds. I love Bishop Spong's quotation and I agree with all you say. So many times it is difficult to understand people from our own faith tradition, how can we dare judge those of a different tradition. What is important is our trust and relationship with God and also that this will help us to create good and constructive relationships with one another. Love from Alicante.


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