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Quranic Perspective and Contemporary Dilemmas: Tolerance, Ethics, and Authority

This piece of writing delves into a stimulating discussion between me and another academician centred on the Quranic verse 10: 41, and its potential applications in addressing contemporary ethical issues. In the face of disagreement, the verse suggests a position of detachment and non-engagement. The discussion ranges from human rights to LGBTQ rights to tolerance and the ethical responsibility of individuals and communities.

In surah Yūnus, God commands to the Prophet (PBUH) as follows: 

And if they deny thee, say, “Unto me, my deeds, and unto you, your deeds. You are quit of that which I do, and I am quit of that which you do.”

This Qur’anic verse has gotten a lot of attention because of its potential relevance in modern debates about tolerance and morality. The verse instructs Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) to respond to rejection or denial by saying, “For me are my deeds, and for you are your deeds. You are disassociated from what I do, and I am disassociated from what you do.”

The discussion that follows looks at whether this Quranic principle can be applied to modern disagreements, particularly those involving human rights, LGBTQ rights, and issues deemed to be matters of divine judgement. The discussion also delves into the limits of tolerance and the ethical implications of various positions.

Tolerance and Disagreement

The initial investigation looks into whether the above verse provides a foundation for peaceful coexistence and “agreeing to disagree” without resorting to quarrels or conflict, and whether this principle can be applied to dialogues with groups whose actions may contradict Islamic teachings. The central question is whether we can tolerate groups whose beliefs and practises contradict Islamic ethics, or whether we should follow the principle of al-nahy ʿan al-munkar (forbidding evil) and actively seek to suppress them. Should all forms of dissent and diversity be tolerated?

The following is my response: 

Understanding Context

When the verses preceding and following 10:41 (i.e., verses 31-43) are examined, it is clear that the tone in which God speaks is confrontational in nature. God commands the Prophet (PBUH) to confront the disbelievers with a series of questions, culminating in the Prophet’s (PBUH) assertion of superiority over those who reject his message. Let us go through the whole portion of verses from 31st to 43rd of Surah Yūnus

Say, “Who provides for you from Heaven and earth? Who has power over hearing and sight? And who brings forth the living from the dead, and brings forth the dead from the living, and who directs the affair?” They will say, “God.” So say, “Will you not, then, be reverent? (31). That is God, your true Lord. What is there beyond truth but error? How, then, are you turned away? (32). Thus the Word of thy Lord came due for those who are iniquitous: truly they believe not (33). Say, “Is there, among your partners, one who originates creation and then brings it back?” Say, “God originates creation, then brings it back. How, then, are you perverted?” (34). Say, “Is there any among your partners who guides unto Truth?” Say, “God guides unto Truth. Is one who guides unto Truth worthier to be followed, or one who cannot guide unless he be guided? What ails you? How do you judge?” (35). And most of them follow naught but conjecture. Truly conjecture does not avail against the truth in the least. Truly God knows what they do (36). This Quran could not have been fabricated [by anyone] apart from God; rather, it is a confirmation of that which came before it, and an elaboration of the Book in which there is no doubt, from the Lord of the worlds (37). Or do they say, “He has fabricated it”? Say, “Then bring a sūrah like it, and call upon whomsoever you can apart from God, if you are truthful.” (38). Nay, but they deny that whose knowledge they cannot comprehend and whose interpretation has not yet come to them. Even so did those who were before them deny. So, behold how the wrongdoers fared in the end (39). Among them are those who believe in it, and among them are those who do not believe in it, and thy Lord knows best the workers of corruption (40). And if they deny thee, say, “Unto me, my deeds, and unto you, your deeds. You are quit of that which I do, and I am quit of that which you do.” (41). And among them are those who listen to thee. But dost thou make the deaf to hear, though they understand not? (42). And among them are those who look at thee. But couldst thou guide the blind, though they see not? (43).   

To my understanding, the context of this Quranic passage is not one of tolerance, but rather one of asserting the Prophet’s (PBUH) authority and challenging the disbelievers. The repeated use of the word ‘kadhdhaba’ (deny) emphasises the antagonistic nature of this discourse, as the reason for God to be aggressive towards the latter is their purposeful belying and rejection of truth even after they knew it.  In this context, God commands like this: O prophet, they will tell you such and such; so, challenge them back by posing such questions. Then they will tell you this, to which you have to challenge them back by posing another question. Then, after all these encounters, if they still belie you, then you proclaim to them that they deserve no more clarification from your side in this particular case and wait to face the consequences. Tell them you are innocent of what they do, and what you do is none of their business!

God knew that this time, the disbelievers do not deserve a language of peace and tolerance, whereas besides all the gentle conveyance of the message, they have exceeded the limit with their attitude of arrogance and lack of respect towards a gentleman who was trying to convey the truth. Similar contexts can be seen in Qur’an, where the divine command is fierce, due to their transgression against Muslims. For instance, look at the following verses:

And slay them wheresoever you come upon them, and expel them whence they expelled you, for strife is worse than slaying. But do not fight with them near the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you there. But if they fight you, then slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.”

(2: 191)

O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be harsh with them. Their refuge is Hell. What an evil journey’s end!

(9: 73)

Islamic Ethics and Ethical Response

Now, coming to the second part of the question, how should we respond to the nonsense, injustice, and violations happening around us? As a matter of fact, the method of response depends upon the aspects of power and authority we possess. In Islamic ethical framework, there are both individual and community moral responsibilities. Everyone is obliged to respond to all kinds of unhealthy conditions around him according to his capacity. It is mentioned in a hadith in Sahih Muslim that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) emphasises the importance of enjoining good and forbidding evil. 

Whoever amongst you sees an evil, he must change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is unable to do so, then with his heart; and that is the weakest form of Faith.”

The hadith lays out a response hierarchy, from taking action to expressing disapproval in one’s heart. Here, the ‘hand’ (yad) denotes a country’s political and intellectual dominance when we infer to a wider realm. And if we or the country are not brave enough to use, or if we simply do not possess that higher power of authority to implement the law and eliminate nonsenses, then at least we should speak, as indicated by ‘tongue’ (lisān), against all nonsenses at a public platform, like parliament, mosques, schools, universities, or wherever possible in whatever capacity.

If we are unbale to do so, then at least we hate the nonsense (fa bi qalbih), in whatever form it may be, keep that hatred in our heart for the sake of God, and be concerned on the ummah and their conditions they are in. And that is the weakest realm of īman.

The hadith implies that Muslims are not required to tolerate actions or behaviours that violate Islamic ethics when they have the power and authority to address them. In situations where Muslims lack the ability to affect change, they should still express their moral position. This rule is also applicable to the issue of LGBTQ and the likes, where they are to be expunged by political and intellectual hands in contemporary context in the most civilized manner, provided that we possess the power and authority to do so, and there is no transgression from the other side. The lesser the power, the lesser the intensity of responses becomes.  

Conclusion

The discussion over Yunus 10:41 reveals the complexities of applying Quranic principles to contemporary dilemmas. While the verse suggests a form of detachment and peaceful disagreement, it is important to consider the larger context of Quranic teachings and Islamic ethical principles. It is imperative that Muslims balance the Quranic principle of peaceful disagreement with their moral responsibility to enjoin good and forbid evil in contemporary dialogues involving human rights, LGBTQ rights, and other contentious issues. Tolerance, engagement, and confrontation should be guided by faith and morality and informed by Islamic ethics and contextual needs. Finally, this discussion highlights the importance of thoughtful, nuanced discussions that consider the multifaceted nature of Quranic teachings and their application in our ever-changing world.

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