The tension between sacred principle and human context: A Muslim approach

Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam, by Ziauddin Sardar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Part Two

The sacred books used by Christians, Muslims, and Mormons contain many prescriptions about how people are to live. They are given as commandments rather than suggestions, with the force of divine law rather than of guidelines for a happy and prosperous life.

The problem for the faithful in our time is that many of these ancient commandments are contrary to dynamic principles and practices of our own time. This conflict can clearly be seen in laws concerning the handling of money, marriage and divorce, politics and religion, crime and punishment, and the relations of religious law and civil law.

This challenge is one of the most important topics that Ziauddin Sardar (described on the book jacket as “one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals”) addresses in his book Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.

As a devout, modern, and scholarly Muslim, Sardar use a short list of interpretive principles to resolves this conflict between ancient text and contemporary life. One of the most important is contained in the idea of contextualism.

An example comes in his discussion of Muhammed as the Prophet. Sardar writes that the Prophet “is always a conceptual model caught in the exigencies of his own time. This caveat applies not only to details of personal habits and dress, but must surely extend to the circumstances by which the nascent Muslim community he led secured its existence. For example, the revelations on warfare, the fight to survive as a community of faithful, addressed to Muhammed are entirely contextual. The fact that warfare, internecine as well as between peoples and nations, has remained a dominant feature of Muslim history is a testament to a failure of moral maturity to assert itself” (p. 223).

The tension between sacred principle and human context is at work in Sardar’s discussion of teachings in the Qur’an concerning marriage and divorce and the continuing relations between men and women. The social context when Muhammed wrote was male-dominated, polygamous, and ready to use violence as the means of resolving disputes.

Some of the teachings in the Qur’an, while accepting the fact of the current social order, laid down specific guidelines that would improve the situation significantly. Even these moderating features, however, were contradicted by other parts of the Qur’an which would “generate moral apprehension” of certain actions and which emphasized “an all-embracing emphasis on gender equality.”

The Qur’an has specific ways of banning actions such as polygamy and misogyny: reducing some practices to “a mere symbol” or allowing them only when “impossible contradictions” are practiced at the same time. “The moral goal is to move towards a society totally free from both polygamy and misogyny and their expression through domestic violence” (p. 308).

Christians have parallel challenges as we use the Bible to guide us in life today. How are we to deal with passages that tell women to keep their heads covered, be silent in church, ask their husbands about things afterwards, and be obedient to their husbands? How are we to deal with passages that instruct believers to obey their rulers because these persons have been set in their places of power by divine authority?

Some Christians make serious efforts to adhere to these principles within the context of contemporary American society. It’s rare to find any Christians who are absolutely consistent in this practice. Nearly everyone, whether they realize it or not, silently makes modest adjustments when circumstances seem to require adaptation.

Others declare that in some of these places the Bible is wrong and can be disregarded. The inculturation of the writers, these interpreters would say, kept them from perceiving God’s intentions for human society. The interpretive task for our time, therefore, is to set aside these erroneous passages and derive from our religious tradition and contemporary social theory a better way to pattern human life.

The contextualization that Sardar proposes stands somewhere between these two methods for dealing with the old texts. He readily acknowledges that the text as it stands contains ideas and issues commands that cannot be believed and practiced in other times and places. He is persuaded, however, that even these problematic texts can be understood in such a way that they are consistent with broader principles that can be applied in new times and places.

The challenge faced by the faithful is to wrestle with these texts until they allow their true meaning to be seen. Many Christians, conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and ecumenical, stand with Sardar in this middle position. Their reverence for the Bible and their devotion to its broad themes of the love of God and neighbor lead them to accept every text as “inspired by God” and serviceable for life today if they but work at the interpretive task long enough.

I have to confess that sometimes I lose that persistent patience. Sardar, however, encourages me to keep at the hard work of connecting text and context.

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One Response to The tension between sacred principle and human context: A Muslim approach

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Keith, thank you for sharing this interaction with Sardar’s book! Most helpful.

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