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The Cool Water of the Koran (Part V)

[This is the fifth Letter on Islam written by Salim Mansur in response to a non-Muslim writer. Letter I is HERE. Letter II is HERE.Letter III is HERE. Letter IV is HERE. — Ed.]

Dear friend:

An acquaintance recently asked why Muslims, or for that matter people belonging to other faith-traditions, spend such enormous time speaking and writing about matters of faith when the “faithful” continue to do violence against their fellow humans. In some manner this gentleman was re-stating what you have written to me.

On this question individuals have written volumes. Among Muslims I am reminded most of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), the famous Arab historian-philosopher from North Africa born in Tunis. Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (“The Introduction”) was in part an effort to understand and explain the violence of Arabs, particularly of the Bedouins or nomads of the desert. His contemplation was the forerunner of what we today take as sociology.

Ibn Khaldun introduced the notion of culture and civilization in writing about human affairs. As a Muslim by birth he took the fundamentals of his faith as given, and wrote at a time when Muslim power across North Africa and into the heartland of Asia was as dominant as when Rome ruled an empire. Ibn Khaldun was perplexed by the nature of violence within the Muslim realm as his family was a victim of the same in Spain from where they departed for refuge in Tunis.

For Ibn Khaldun sedentary dwelling — made possible in cities where an individual found refinement in living, where arts and philosophy flourished and business prospered — accounted for civilization. But he saw an abiding tension between people who built cities and those who raided them. From this tension he conceived an explanation for the cycle of the rise and fall of civilizations and their ruling dynasties.

Ibn Khaldun viewed Islam as a civilizing force for the Arabs, especially for the Arabs of the desert – the Bedouins. Of the Bedouins, Ibn Khaldun wrote, they are “a savage nation, fully accustomed to savagery and the things that cause it… Such a natural disposition is the negation and antithesis of civilization.” Ibn Khaldun would have well understood at once the savage “natural disposition” of Osama bin Laden and the men of al Qaeda and similar organizations that run amuck in the Arab-Muslim world threatening civilization beyond the desert boundaries (real or allegorical) of the world in which they are born.

Another North African, living a thousand years before Ibn Khaldun, also wrote on the violence of men and the ruin of civilized order. St. Augustine (354-430) was born in Thagaste, presently recognized as Souk Ahras in modern Algeria, a town in close proximity to Tunis. Unlike Ibn Khaldun, St. Augustine was born into a pagan household, acquired Manichaean belief, and then in his middle years converted to Christianity.

In his Confessions St. Augustine narrated his spiritual journey in captivating prose of great majesty. I traveled a summer ago to the home town of St. Augustine to pay homage to this great soul from North Africa, and later spent an afternoon meditating at his Cathedral over-looking the city of Annaba built on the Mediterranean at the eastern end of Algeria.

St. Augustine believed human violence resulted from a lack of goodness in the hearts of men or, more pointedly, from the absence of God in their lives. Man, he wrote, “is a great abyss,” and “the moods and attractions of his heart far outnumber the hairs of his head.” The violence men do to others or to themselves is due to insufficient goodness in their hearts. Evil, St. Augustine explained, “does not exist of itself.”

St. Augustine spoke of “true holiness” or goodness as an “interior disposition;” as an inward awakening of the heart to a reality where God resides in the heart of man. A man awakened to this inward reality will be filled with goodness and incapable of doing harm. There would be no evil in him.

The common thread that runs through the writings of St. Augustine and Ibn Khaldun concerns the condition of man, of men insufficient in goodness and of men naturally disposed to savagery. St. Augustine, as a theologian, contemplated on the nature and presence of God and in the manner He revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Ibn Khaldun. trained as a Muslim jurist, contemplated on the nature of the good society based on laws derived from religion revealed in the Koran by a merciful God. They would have made good companions as contemporaries respectfully engaging with each other in the temperate climate of North Africa along the shores of the Mediterranean.

I think of St. Augustine and Ibn Khaldun when I contemplate on the state of our present world, or when I turn to the Koran to read God’s words as they were addressed at a particular time in a particular place to a particular individual, Muhammad. Both North Africans were men of faith. They placed God at the centre of their lives and from this reality drew conclusions for individuals and society in terms of goodness and its insufficiency that breeds evil.

But understanding God in the manner of theologians, philosophers and jurists remains a cold cerebral exercise in explaining a reality that, in its infinity, is elusive. A mystic seeks immersion in the reality of God, yet once he is soaked in that reality he can scarcely communicate his experience to non-mystics. This is the paradox of the human mind striving to comprehend and convey what is unlimited. It is like a flea taking in the size of an elephant.

This is why the Koran, at least for Muslims, is the closest example available of God’s disclosure of Himself to every man and woman in His own words. The purpose of Revelation in the first instance is to make human beings aware of God as the Source of all things, and how they might eventually and of necessity find refuge in His mercy. Everything ultimately is dissolved in God’s goodness as St. Augustine would remind us, and it is this simple eternal truth of which the Koran speaks equally to an illiterate peasant in the field and a university professor engaged in theorizing on the mysterious workings of quantum mechanics. The Persian poet Rumi spoke of this dissolution in his inimitable style as follows:

As salt resolved in the ocean
I was swallowed in God’s sea,
Past faith, past unbelieving,
Past doubt, past certainty.

Suddenly in my bosom
A star shone clear and bright;
All the suns of heaven
Vanished in that star’s light.

My late teacher and friend, Wilfred Cantwell Smith (1916-2000), described the Koran (certainly for Muslims) as “the eternal breaking through into time; the unknowable disclosed; the transcendent entering history and remaining here, available to mortals to handle and to appropriate; the divine become apparent.” The Koran, in this particular sense, is God’s mercy for human beings who, unaided by its words, can scarcely imagine truthfully His presence unless He discloses Himself.

It is merely adolescent for men and women to quarrel over God and insist their perspectives are the only truthful ones and others are in error or false. Anyone who experiences the reality of God, even when such experience cannot be articulated, knows that others with similar experiences have been graced with divine mercy.

Those who experience God have their hearts filled with His goodness and in them there is no evil. Of those who merely speak about God, we should remain always wary. about They dress in the garments of religion to mask their politics. And then there are those whose hearts remain closed to God irrespective of how many times they strike their heads on the ground in acts of prayer. Their words and deeds, insufficient in goodness, are evil.

Salim Mansur

Salim Mansur is a professor of political science at the University of Western Ontario and a syndicated columnist in Canada and the United Kingdom. A Muslim native to Calcutta, India, and a noted Islamic scholar, Prof. Mansur has written extensively on Islamic extremism and the challenges facing contemporary Islam.
“From water God made every living thing.”
-Surah Number 21 Ayah Number 30, Koran