Defining Without Confining: reflections on a prophetic usage of sacred space.

22 02 2009

Reza Shah-Kazemi


In the ninth year after the Hijra (631), a prominent Christian delegation from Najrān, an important centre of Christianity in the Yemen,came to engage the Prophet in theological debate in Medina. The main point of contention was the nature of Christ: was he one of the messengers of God or the unique Son of God? What is of importance for our purposes is not the disagreements voiced, but the fact that when these Christians requested to leave the city to perform their liturgy, the Prophet invited them to accomplish their rites in his own mosque. According to Ibn Ishaq, who gives the standard account of this remarkable event, the Christians in question were Malaki, that is, they performed the Byzantine Christian rites. This means that they were enacting the Eucharistic rites which incorporated the fully-developed trinitarian theology of the Orthodox councils, emphasising the definitive creed of the divine sonship of Christ – doctrines explicitly criticised in the Qur’an. Nonetheless, the Prophet allowed the Christians to accomplish their mass and their rites in his own mosque. One observes here a perfect example of how disagreement on the plane of dogma can co-space, which is the exclusive property of no one religion.

This act of the Prophet should not be seen in isolation but as one in a series of such symbolic acts which, more powerfully than words, indicate the sanctity of the religions that preceded Islam. Another such act was the protection by the Prophet of the icon of the Virgin and Child in the Ka’ba. He instructed all idols within the holy house to be destroyed, but, according to at least two early historians, Waqidi and Azraqi, he himself protected this icon, not allowing it to be destroyed. Also of relevance here is the charter, said to be sealed by the prophet himself, granting protection to the monastery of St Catherine in Sinai. The charter states that wherever monks orhermits are to be found:

on any mountain, hill, village, or other habitable place, on the sea or in the deserts or in any convent, church or house of prayer, I shall be watching over them as their protector, with all my soul, together with all my umma; because they [the monks and hermits] are a part of my own people, and part of those protected by me.

Also, most significantly, the charter makes it incumbent on the Muslims not only to protect the monks, but also, in regard to Christians generally, to “consolidate their worship at Church”.

It is important at this point to cite some of the key verses of the Qur’an which clearly reveal the illogicality and vanity of religious chauvinism. Salvation is the consummation, through grace, of a fundamental spiritual orientation; it is not the automatic reward granted for belonging to one community rather than another. Perhaps the most important of all the proof-texts for upholding this claim is:

Truly those who believe, and the Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whoever believeth in God and the Last Day and performeth virtuous deeds – surely their reward is with their Lord, and no fear shall come upon them, neither shall they grieve. (II: 62).

Muhammad Asad, one of the most highly respected translators of the Qur’an, asserts that the word Islam itself would have been understood by the hearers of the word at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an in terms of its universal, and not communal, meaning. In other words, the religion bestowed upon the Prophet Muhammad was the very same religion which was bestowed upon his predecessors:

 He hath ordained for you of religion that which He commended unto Noah, and that which We reveal to thee [Muhammad], and that which We commended unto Abraham and Moses and Jesus, saying: Establish the religion, and be not divided therein … (XLII: 13)

The essence of religion is one and the same, but its forms vary. The reason for this diversity is succinctly given in this verse:

 For each We have appointed from you a Law and a Way. Had God willed, He could have made you one community. But that He might try you by that which He hath given you [He hath made you as you are]. So vie with one another in good works. Unto God ye will all return, and He will inform you of that wherein ye differed. (V: 48)

 The import of this verse is confirmed by this one:

 Unto each community We have given sacred rites (mansakan) which they are to perform; so let them not dispute with thee about the matter, but summon them unto thy Lord. (XXII: 67)

 On the one hand, there are different rites revealed for different religions; but on the other, there is no difference in the essence of the prophetic message. Muslims are told in the Qur’an in various places not to “distinguish between” any of God’s messengers.

 And yet, the Qur’an also contains severe condemnations of such doctrines as the sonship of Christ and other deviations of the People of the Book. It is thus not surprising that upholders of the exoteric viewpoint refer to verse 3:85, as superseding earlier ones such as 2:62, which appears to promise salvation to Christians Jews and Sabians:

 And whoso seeketh a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and he will be a loser in the Hereafter. (III: 85)

 Now whereas this last sentence is understood, from a theological point of view, as upholding the exclusive validity of Islam, defined as the religion revealed to God’s last Prophet, it can also be seen as confirming the intrinsic validity of all the revelations brought by all the prophets mentioned in the previous verse, 3:84, prophets such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, etc. One thus finds in the Qur’anic discourse both censure of the errors of the religious Other and affirmation of the essence of the revelations granted to the Other – both theological differentiation and a supra-theological unification.

Complete article: Interreligious Insight: a Journal of Dialogue and Engagement, July 2005 Edition




One response

23 02 2009

Reza Shah-Kazemi’s another small book (with big impact) is My Mercy Encompasses All: The Koran’s Teachings on Compassion, Peace and Love. An in depth review of this book can be found at Amazon and the link to get it through your library is here. It is a highly recommended book for the bridge-building.

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