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Kabir Helminski

Kabir Helminski

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What Is 'True Piety' According to the Qur'an?

Posted: 08/13/10 06:34 AM ET

Editor's Note: Huffington Post Religion has launched a scripture commentary/reflection series, which will bring together leading voices from different religious traditions to offer their wisdom on selected religious texts. We are pleased to announce a series of reflections for the Holy Month of Ramadan featuring posts by HM Queen Noor, Dalia Mogahed, Eboo Patel, Kabir Helminski, and Rami Nashashibi. They will all be reflecting on a passage from the Qur'an, Sura 2:177, which appears below. Last month we featured Christian reflections on the Gospel by Rev. Jim Wallis, Dr. Serene Jones, Dr. Emilie Townes, Sister Joan Chittister, and Rev. James Martin, S.J. Coming in September we will feature Jewish commentaries for the High Holidays and in October Hindu commentary for Diwali. We hope all readers, Muslim and non-Muslim, will gain wisdom from the insights of our writers on the Holy Qur'an:

True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west -- but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance -- however much he himself may cherish -- it -- upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God. (2:177 [Asad])

The Qur'an is the record of 23 years of messages given to the Prophet Muhammad by a source which he believed to be the very same God who addressed all previous human communities, as well as the Prophets Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (among others). From the Muslim perspective, the verses (ayats) of the Qur'an are both an intimate dialog between God and Muhammad and a source of guidance for human beings in general. Non-Muslims, and especially Westerners, bring their own expectations, and sometimes their own prejudices, to their attempts at understanding this "book." The great American classicist Norman O. Brown began a study of Islam late in his life and offered some extraordinary insights in a series of lectures which have been recently published as The Challenge of Islam. Brown once reflected that the West was not ready to appreciate the Qur'an before James Joyce's avant-garde Finnegan's Wake was published.

Both texts are many-layered, non-linear language events. Just as Ulysses is not quite a novel about Ireland but an experiment that probes the very possibilities and limits of language, so, too, the Qur'an challenges human sensibilities. It describes itself as "a sublime Book. No falsehood can ever enter it from in front or behind. It is a bestowal from on high by the One who is All-Wise, and to whom belongs all praise" (41:41-42). It does not, however, claim a monopoly on the truth, but rather "sets forth the Truth, confirming the Truth of whatever remains of earlier revelations" (5:48), affirming, for instance, that the Torah of the Jews is "a guidance and a light" (5:44).

Some of what gets in the way of Westerners reading it for the first time includes:

  1. A tendency to project meanings from our own religious conditioning onto the Qur'an.
  2. Numerous unspoken assumptions about how we think the Divine should speak and what it should say.
  3. A tendency to absolutize statements out of context, while willfully ignoring the comprehensive meaning derived from a broad knowledge of the text.

Needless to say, all of these things can get in the way of an openhearted, sensitive reading of the text. Since most English translations have adopted Biblical terms to translate the Qur'an, the linguistic originality and uniqueness has been obscured. In some translations we encounter the terms "believers" and "unbelievers" and we think of those who do or do not subscribe to an exclusive doctrine or dogma dictated to them by a religious authority. The root meanings of these words are not about "belief" at all, but about a perception of spiritual reality, a trust that life has meaning and purpose, a certainty of the heart that has little to do with theology. The Arabic term which has been translated as unbeliever is kafir which would better be understood as someone in denial, someone who willfully "covers" (i.e., denies) the spiritual dimension of life -- no matter what their nominal, purported religion or lack thereof.

For reference, the most respected translation and the most comprehensive linguistic analysis and commentary on the Qur'an is The Message of the Qur'an by Muhammad Asad. Asad was born Leopold Weiss, son of a Rabbi in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, who was, among other things, Pakistan's first Ambassador to the United Nations.

Much of the Qur'an is about getting beyond man-made beliefs and dogmas, about becoming vigilant about the ways spirituality degenerates into self-serving orthodoxies and power structures, about returning us to the simple awe and wonder of a pure heart, about doing the work that supports human dignity and well-being. I know what some people are now thinking: what this really means is setting up a religious dictatorship. History shows otherwise. Islamic societies were typically multi-cultural and multi-religious, as witnessed by the Ottoman world, Spain in the Middle Ages, and Jerusalem over 12 centuries of Muslim rule.

The quotation we are looking at here is a good example of this valuing of essential goodness over religious doctrine and form, because it tells us that true and sincere goodness is not the result of merely conforming to the outer forms of religious rituals, but consists of doing good to others, living a life of service, bearing suffering with patience, and overcoming fear. To say that "piety" (Arabic birr, literally "goodness") is not about facing east or west is significant in the Islamic context, where the direction of Mecca is always kept in mind for establishing the direction in which one will prostrate during the five-times-per-day ritual prayer. As important as that is, it is not as important as being a good person, "sharing one's substance" with those who are near to us, with wayfarers, with anyone needing refuge, and the freeing of other people from all sorts of "bondage." It is to embody the essence of religion, which includes not "believing in" but being "faithful to" God, His angels, His Prophets (without distinguishing some as more important than others), and recognizing an external accountability for our actions.