Conditional Trust, Imagining Death, The Absolute
Issue 935 » February 24, 2017 - Jumada al-Awwal 27, 1438 - Jumada al-Awwal 27, 1438
Al-Baqara (The Cow) Sura 2: Verses 30-31 (partial)
"And when your Lord said to the angels: 'I will create a vicegerent on earth', they said: 'Will You place therein one who will spread corruption and shed blood, whilst we hymn Your praise and glorify Your holy (name)?' God answered: 'I know that which you know not.' And He taught Adam the names of all things."
God introduces humanity as khalifa. This is a central concept of Islam. The word is often translated, as 'vicegerent', but it also has the sense and can be translated as 'trustee'. Khalifa includes the notion of succession, of one who succeeds another, or inherits. What we inherit is our place in God's created order. Our inheritance is not outright ownership but a conditional trust: we have to discharge our trust responsibly with accountability to God. We will each have to answer for how we used this inheritance. We must answer for our own actions; we must answer for how we operated our relationships with our fellow human beings; we must answer for how we cared for and utilised the resources of the world in which we live. And, as the term implies, we live as part of succeeding generations of human beings and thus have responsibilities towards future generations. We are responsible for handing on the trust of this world in as good a state as possible for the use and benefit of those who come after us.
To be human is to have abilities: this is symbolised in God teaching Adam the 'names of all things'. The word for names (ism) is understood to mean the ability to define and distinguish between things, the essence of reasoning and conceptual thought. We are created with the capacity to be knowledgeable beings with the ability to learn. Learning and knowledge are by their very nature cumulative, so we have the potential as well as the responsibility to progress in understanding. To know the names is the basis of language. As the Quran makes clear (30:22, 49:13), the diversity of human languages, cultures and races and nations is part of the intention of creation. Therefore, whatever the language or cultures of our birth, the challenge is to employ these endowments, to use our abilities to make the best of our life on earth.
"Reading the Qur'an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam" - Ziauddin Sardar, pp. 91, 92
The exercise of imagining death is an act of thinking about death and beyond, bringing to mind the dread and loneliness of the grave, remembering the perils that await a person on the road to the afterlife and living with the consideration that death may come at any moment. In other words, not thinking, "I am still young anyway. Given that I am twenty, I probably have some sixty more years before I die. Some people live to see their eighties," but seeing death as a surprise visitor that can appear at anytime, and making preparations accordingly. As an Arab poet said, "Death comes all of a sudden; and the grave is a chest of deeds." So, whatever a person has gained so far will be the provisions he takes along with him.
Such a sentiment is very important for the sake of the afterlife, for if a person did not walk on a safe road in the worldly life, then the road will not be safe for him in the afterlife either. Thus, that person will have to travel a very dangerous road in the afterlife. Since the exercise of imagining death makes a person gain constant awareness in this respect and makes him think about what will be beyond the grave, it is an important factor that needs to be made use of.
As it is known, during the early period of Islam, the noble Prophet prohibited believers from visiting graves, probably due to the improper practices relating to graves that remained from the Age of Ignorance. However, after some time, when this mistaken understanding was abolished, he stated: "I prohibited you from visiting graves. Now visit graves, for it reminds you of the afterlife." [Muslim]
"The two dynamics that keep religious life alive" - Fethullah Gulen
Without the idea of God there is no absolute meaning, truth or morality: ethics becomes simply a question of taste, a mood or a whim. Unless politics and morality somehow include the idea of 'God', they will remain pragmatic and shrewd rather than wise. If there is no absolute, there is no reason why we should not hate or why war is worse than peace. Religion is essentially an inner feeling that there is a God. One of our earliest dreams is a longing for justice (how frequently we hear children complain: 'It's not fair!'). Religion records the aspirations and accusations of innumerable human beings in the face of suffering and wrong. It makes us aware of our finite nature; we all hope that the injustice of the world will not be the last word.
The prophets insisted that cult and worship were useless unless society as a whole adopted a more just and compassionate ethos. These insights were developed by Jesus, Paul and the Rabbis, who all shared the same Jewish ideals and suggested major changes in Judaism in order to implement them. The Koran made the creation of a compassionate and just society the essence of the reformed religion of Allah. Compassion is a particularly difficult virtue. It demands that we go beyond the limitations of our egotism, insecurity and inherited prejudice. Not surprisingly, there have been times when all three of the God-religions have failed to achieve these high standards. All too often, conventional believers, who are not fundamentalists, share their aggressive righteousness. They use 'God' to prop up their own loves and hates, which they attribute to God himself. Yet Jews, Christians and Muslims who punctiliously attend divine services yet denigrate people who belong to different ethnic and ideological camps deny one of the basic truths of their religion. It is equally inappropriate for people who call themselves Jews, Christians and Muslims to condone an inequitable social system. The God of historical monotheism demands mercy not sacrifice, compassion rather than decorous liturgy.
"A History of God" - Karen Armstrong