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The Holy Books as Light and Guide to Humanity

Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi

While many books of politics are filled with the call for a “clash of civilizations,” the Holy Books call for a “dialogue of civilizations,” and for an “understanding of civilizations.” They all share the basics Abrahamic moral guidance, and if we search in depth in the sacred scriptures of the rest of the world’s religious traditions, we will find much of the same teaching of the Abrahamic faiths in them also. A careful, detailed look at the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, as well as the Qur’an, makes clear the common religious values and ethics inherent in all three traditions. As the last of the three, the Holy Quran urges Muslims to believe in the holy scriptures of Jews and Christians that preceded it. The Quran affirms in AaL Imran Surah: {“It is He Who sent down to thee, in truth, the Book, confirming what was before it; and He revealed (sent down) the Law (of Moses) and the Gospel (of Jesus) before, as a guide to mankind, and He sent down the criterion (of judgment between right and wrong).”}(AaL Imran Surah: verse 3-4). In this Sunday morning talk, I will focus on the teachings of the Quran since not many of you are aware of its text.  

Let me begin by at the way in which the Holy Books share the belief in the goodness and power of God. The Psalmist states: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The Quran teaches Muslims to love and worship God and that there is but one God whose message was brought to humanity by a series of prophets, including the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, and ending with Muhammad.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share the concern for the individual relationship with God and the importance of manifesting that love in relations with others. When Jesus was asked which of God’s commandments was most important, Mark records Jesus’ response: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (12:28-30, citing Deut. 6:4) He then added: “The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:31) In loving God and loving others, humanity elevates itself and unites in purpose with God.

The Qur’an promotes positive bonds between people because of their common moral responsibility toward one another. Chief among these are deep ethical commitments to equality and justice, and charity to the poorest and the marginalized.

The Holy Books are filled with hope, love, and peace. The Hebrew Scriptures, in the Old Testament provided the people of Israel with hope that helped them continue to survive and move on with their lives despite the tragic catastrophes they had to endure in their long history. No matter how good today is, they continue to have hope that tomorrow will be a better day. It is hope that helped them keep the faith in the midst of despair and tragedy. American historian Charles Beard once said, “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.” In Judaism, the essential moral concept of hesed, meaning ‘kindness’ and ‘love.’  This is love displayed through deeds, doing acts of kindness for others. One classic example of hesed is the story in Genesis of Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent and spotting three strangers approaching. He greets them and brings them inside to give them food and drink. Abraham does not know that the three are angels. But the implication is that Abraham and Sarah, his wife, treated all strangers as if they were angels. Further on the kindness to strangers, the commandment to love ‘the stranger’ was mentioned more than 36 times in the Torah. But the stranger in this context was extended to all Gentiles as expressed in Exodus in which the Israelites were commanded to not afflict the stranger because they were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

In one of his best known observations, Rabbi Akiva said that the greatest principle in Torah is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Palestinian Talmud, Nedarim 9:4). Famed scholar Hillel added to this by summarizing all of Judaism in the sentence: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others,” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). All world religions teach the Golden Rule.

The Bible reminds us of Christ’s inspiring words: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your creator in heaven.” (Mt. 5:44-45) Paul views the love of neighbor as fulfillment of the law of love, as well as individual commandments of the Torah (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-15). Paul makes this point particularly clear: “Owe no one anything except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments are summed up in this command, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14). When pressed about who “the neighbor” was, Luke records Jesus as answering in the form of a parable: when a man was robbed, beaten, stripped and left to die, two religious people passed the victim by without help. Then an “impure outsider,” a Samaritan, came to the victim’s aid, tending to his wounds and bringing him to safety. Jesus thereby makes the argument that a neighbor is anyone, regardless of status or piety, who is in need. This was a self-conscious effort to broaden the sense of community beyond traditional boundaries to a universal standard.

Love is one of the most central themes of the Holy Books. Early Christians used the term agape to mean “Christian love”, the kind of self-sacrificing love of God for humanity that Christ exemplified. Christians are called to practice the kind of unconditional, respectful love for God with one another (1 Corinthians 10:24; Ephesians 4:1-6).  Paul urges: ‘Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Ephesians 5:1,2). This was intended to inform all social relations, from family and marriage to friendships (John 15:13).

John records Jesus as proclaiming, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12, 13)  Jesus’ subsequent death on the cross represents for Christians the ultimate act of compassion and love.

Paul talks at length about brotherly love  and its significance to the community (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8: 12-14). Christian social values, while centrally based in the cardinal principle of love, also carry over many of the ethical precepts found in Judaism. As Hebrews 13: 1-3 explains: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Elaborating on Biblical ethics, Jesus proclaims that “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). Jesus asks believers to love all others as God loves creation: God sends sunshine and rain on the good as well as the bad (Matthew 5: 43-48). As God does not distinguish among his creation, nor should his believers.

The Bible calls upon Christians to be peacemakers. Similarly, the Quran teaches its followers to be peacemakers and to deplore violence and aggression. It states: {“Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love the aggressors.”} [Cow Surah; 190]; also, “But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace” (8:61)

The practice of justice and the seeking of a just society are divine commandments of the Holy Books. The Torah, the Bible, and the Quran, all make clear that piety must necessarily translate in society through a striving for charity and justice. “Learn to do good, Seek justice, Aid the oppressed. Uphold the rights of the orphan, Defend the cause of the widow.”(Isaiah 1:17). This teaching compresses the moral guidance of the Holy Books. In Judaism, the Hebrew word tzedakah combines two concepts: charity and justice. In Islam, the word sadakah refers to the concept of charity to the poor. [17:26-29] The Quran says: “You shall give the due alms to the relatives, the needy, the poor, and the travelling alien, but do not be excessive, extravagant.”} In Christianity, the closest phrase to tzedakah is social justice. The Qur’an states that the path of the righteous involves conscientious charity: “Ye will not attain unto righteousness until ye spend that which ye love. And whatsoever ye spend, God is Aware thereof” (3:92). The Qur’an makes it clear that it is the duty of society’s privileged to care for the poor (2:273). The Qur’an simultaneously rewards charitable deeds as among the greatest acts of piety.

In spirit, charity is an act of worship, on par in the Qur’an with salat (prayer). Indeed, the two are frequently used together in the Qur’an, representing both personal and social worship of God (2:110, 2:227). The Qur’an frequently extols the virtues of charity (2: 261-266), adding that the best use of charity is for caring for parents, kin, orphans, the needy, and wayfarers (2:215; 59:7; 76:8).

Jews, Christians, Muslims, are called upon to pursue justice no matter how remote the possibility of achieving it or overcoming injustice. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself.”  Rabbi Emanuel Rackman observed that Judaism teaches an empathic justice, which “…seeks to make people identify with each another – with each other’s needs, with each other’s hopes and aspirations, with each other’s defeats and transformations.” He affirms: “Because Jews have known the distress of slaves and the loneliness of strangers, we are to project ourselves into their souls and make their plight our own.” The Psalms speaks to the role of the just ruler who would receive divine aid: “That he may judge Thy people with righteousness (tzedek) and Thy poor with justice (mishpat).” The verse goes on to add: “May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psa. 72:2, 4).

The Qur’an makes clear that justice itself is a command from God (16:90, 5:8), enjoining believers to that which is just and kind (16:90), as well as forbidding that which is unjust (72:15; 60:8). The primacy of justice among Islamic values is demonstrated by God’s command to pursue it above all other considerations: {“O you who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor, for God can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily God is well-acquainted with all that ye do”(4:35).

Forgiveness is the principle which brings together the Christian and Muslim values of love, compassion, humility, and mercy together. Forgiveness is a defining virtue and practice of Christianity and Islam. More than an ideal, forgiveness is a central part of Christian worship and identity, and is prominently and frequently stated in the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Similarly, one of the moral traits recommended in the Qur’an is forgiveness: “Hold to forgiveness, command what is right, and turn away from the ignorant.” (Qur’an, 7: 199) In another verse God commands: “… They should rather pardon and overlook. Would you not love God to forgive you? God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an, 24:22)  God advises the faithful: “The repayment of a bad action is one equivalent to it. But if someone pardons and puts things right, his reward is with God…” (Qur’an, 42:40).In another verse: “…. But if you pardon and exonerate and forgive, God is Ever-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’an, 64: 14). The Qur’an reveals that forgiveness is a superior moral trait: “But if someone is steadfast and forgives, that is the most resolute course to follow.” (Qur’an, 42:43) For that reason, believers are forgiving, compassionate and tolerant people who, as revealed in the Qur’an, “control their rage and pardon other people.” (Qur’an, 3:134)

In Jewish, Christian Scripture and the Quran, greed, arrogance, and pride are understood as being idolatrous. As  throughout Jewish history had done, Jesus warned his community of the consequences of corruption, injustice and God’s judgment in this life and the next.

Islam teaches that God endowed humanity with a good, purposeful nature and with a deep inner awareness of God. Muslims believe humanity has been given divine guidance through the Qur’an. The Qur’an is understood as a “mercy” to mankind, enjoining Muslims to use their gifts and act on their innate sense of decency in service and obedience to God through the creation of a just and peaceful society (6:157; 21:107, 6:165).

Being a Muslim implies not only a belief in the one God, angels, the prophets, the scripture and the Day of Judgment, but also actively upholding a set of personal obligations to community and abiding by clearly defined codes of social and moral conduct that are embodied in Christianity and Judaism.

As God revealed Himself to the Jewish and Christian communities in times of extreme oppression, Islamic tradition holds that God’s revelation to Muslims came in a period of oppression by ignorance, corruption and violence tearing apart the fabric of Arabian tribes. This time of al-jahiliyya (ignorance) was ended with God’s revelation of the Qur’an through the Prophet Mohammed, whose leadership ultimately united the disparate, warring tribes of Arabia into a unified Muslim community (ummah).

The core beliefs in liberty, equality, fraternity, moderation, and social justice – the “Abrahamic ethics” – are foundational religious values which carry significant social and political implications. Some of the social values that emerge from these fundamental principles in Islam include those emphasizing Ta’aruf (knowing one another), Ta’awun (cooperation, mutual assistance, in transactions), and Takamul (complementarity and completion). In Islam, the only differentiation among creation is in piety (taqwa) or righteousness (birr). In his final sermon, the Prophet said:

•        The Qur’anic vision of pluralism is closely related to the belief in fundamental equality of humanity and God’s plan for creation (49:13). The Qu’ran states that God sent out different prophets [the Hebrew prophets and Jesus] to different people at different times to reveal the same truth of the oneness of God and of individual moral accountability (2:213). Pluralism and diversity are therefore to be approached through the principles of justice and egalitarianism, where the doing of good deeds are the only forms of distinction acceptable to God. Diversity exists today as a call to know others, and “view with one another to attain your Sustainer’s forgiveness… for God loves those who do good” (3:133-134). Where religious pluralism is concerned, the Qur’an states: {“Had God willed, He would have made you into one community; but [it was His will] to test you in what He gave you. So compete with each other in doing good works. To God you are all returning, and He will inform you about how you differed”}. (5:48); The Quran affirms: {…indeed the more honorable among you, in the sight of God, is one who is more pious among you..”}  {Hujurat Surah; verse 13} {“Had your Lord pleased, He would have united all mankind} [Houd Surah; verse 118]

•        {“Had it been God’s will, He could have made them all of one religion.“}  [Shurat Surah; verse 8]

•        {Had your Lord pleased, He would have made you one nation.}       [Table Surah; verse 48]

The Qur’an confers legitimacy to and demonstrates a strong respect for the Jewish and Christian communities living within and alongside the Muslim community. The Qur’an states: {“Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians…and (all) who believe in God and the last day and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve“}.(2:62)

Islam offered “Peoples of the Book” a broad scope of religious freedoms, protections, and minority group rights within Muslim communities as a religious moral duty. Muslims are encouraged to invite non-Muslims into a “respectful” and “gentle” dialogue on religion, with “wisdom and beautiful preaching,” (16:125, 22:67-69), though nothing more. Where disagreement or acrimony enters into dialogue, Muslims are instructed to part ways, saying “To you your beliefs, and to me mine” (109:6) (1:107-9). On interfaith disputes, the Qur’an reminds Muslims that only God can be the final arbiter on matters of ultimate truth: “God will judge between you on the Day of Judgment concerning the matters in which you differ.” (22:76-69) While God endowed humankind with a decent and God-fearing nature, the Qur’an makes it clear that God’s purpose for creation is to test humanity in the application and manifestation of our greatest potential and ideals. The Qur’an asks, “Do you think that you will enter the garden while God has not yet known those who strive hard from among you, and (He has not) known the patient?” (3:142)

Numerous verses in the Qur’an promote an ethic of social duty and responsibility toward fellow Muslim and non-Muslims. The Qur’an states that “Verily, the believers are brothers” (49:9).

 Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, seek to provide the moral and spiritual guidance through the Holy Books for individual believers to fulfill their divine purpose in worshipping God and establishing a just and peaceful society. Given the human capacity to know God and choose moral actions accordingly, the Abrahamic ethic speaks to fundamental human dignity. The Abrahamic principles of liberty, equality and fraternity serve as important moral guideposts to evaluate progress in society. The path of Abraham not only provides a means of ennobling the soul, but also bringing believers in harmony with one another, and in proximity to God. As the Quran states: {And who better in faith than the one who willingly surrenders his being to God, and is a doer of good, and follows the way of Abraham the rightly oriented? For God took Abraham as a friend.} (4:125).

In conclusion, one may ask: If the Holy Books hold similar tenets, then why are we so far apart and how can we close the gap? Interfaith dialogue brings us together, ignorance separates us apart. We need to support our faith with knowledge. In this increasing climate of religious hostility and prejudice, we need to learn about the religion of the other, to reach out in love and friendship to our sisters and brothers embracing different faiths, in order through this interfaith understanding and solidarity we can establish world peace. In the Proverbs, we read: “If you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding; if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures – then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God…Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path.” (Proverbs 2:3-5)..

Thank you for your attention. God Bless you..

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