Monday, August 20, 2018

Islam: The Legacy of Abraham (Part II)

 2. Mecca as the Birthplace of Islam

Surat al-Baqara then goes on to narrate that God ordered Abraham and Ishmael to build the Ka‘ba as a “sanctuary” and “center for mankind.”  Abraham in turn prays to God to make the land into a safe and prosperous city:

We made the House a center for mankind and sanctuary, saying, “Take the spot where Abraham stood as your place of prayer.” We commanded Abraham and Ishmael: “Purify My House for those who walk round it, those who stay there, and those who bow and prostrate themselves in worship.”  Abraham said, ‘My Lord, make this a secure city and provide with produce those of its people who believe in God and the Last Day.” (2:125-126)[1]

Thus, the Ka‘ba became the earthly symbol of islām, and Mecca became its spiritual capital.

Moreover, it was here, upon completing the building of the Ka‘ba, that Abraham prayed to God to elect from his descendants a muslim nation:

As Abraham and Ishmael built up the foundations of the House [they prayed], “Our Lord, accept [this] from us.  You are the All Hearing, the All Knowing. Our Lord, make us submitted to You (muslimayni la-ka), and make from our descendants a nation submitted to you (ummatan muslimatan la-ka)…Our Lord, make a messenger of their own rise up from among them, to recite Your revelations to them, teach them the Scripture and wisdom, and purify them: You are the Mighty, the Wise.” (2:127-129)

Hence, the Qur’an teaches us that the sending of Muhammad as a messenger (peace be upon him) and the Qur’anic revelation are both in fact part of the legacy of Abraham, stemming from the prayer he made upon building and consecrating the Ka‘ba.

3. Surat al-Baqara: The Establishment of the Muslim Nation

Surat al-Baqara, which was mostly revealed in the first and second years of the Hijra, is a historic sura, because this is the sura in which Allah declared the establishment of the Muslim umma or nation.  It is meant to be “a middle nation,” balanced between the excesses of the Jewish and Christian communities, and to serve (like Abraham) as an example for the rest of mankind:

The foolish people will say, “What has turned them away from the prayer direction they used to face?” Say, “East and West belong to Allah. He guides whoever He will to the right way.” Thus We have made you into a middle nation (ummatan wasaṭan), so that you may bear witness [to the truth] before others and so that the Messenger may bear witness [to it] before you. (2:142-143)

With the Hijra, the Muslims had become socially and politically separate and independent from the Quraysh.  Subsequently, when Allah announced the change of the prayer direction from the Temple of Jerusalem to the Ka‘ba—“the first house [of worship] established for mankind” (3:96)—He formally distinguished the religion of the Muslims from that of the Jews.  Hence, the above passage marks the very foundation of the Muslims as an independent nation and religious community.

This is highlighted by the structure of Surat al-Baqara itself.  The sura has the following overall structure, with the change of prayer direction being the central section of the sura:

A. Faith and Disbelief (vv. 1-39): Believers and disbelievers; God created and will resurrect.
B. Criticism of the Israelites (vv. 40-121): Moses delivers law to Children of Israel; Children of Israel fail to submit.
C. Abraham’s legacy (vv. 122-141): Abraham was tested; Ka‘ba built by Abraham and Ishmael; prayer that descendants will return to monotheism and submit to God.
D. The change of prayer direction to the Ka‘ba (vv. 142-152): the new Muslim community is established as a “middle nation” who believe and compete in doing good works.
C’. Restoring Abraham’s legacy (vv. 153-177): Muslims will be tested; instructions about pilgrimage to Mecca; warning not to take ancestors or their gods as rivals besides God.
B’. Laws for the new Muslim nation (vv. 178-242): Prophet delivers law to Muslims; Muslims exhorted to submit wholeheartedly.
A’. The struggle of the believers against the disbelievers (vv. 243-286): Believers in struggle against disbelievers; God’s power over creation and to resurrect; laws of financial dealings.

The sura therefore “revolves” around the Ka‘ba, much as believers circle around the Ka‘ba during the Hajj.  Moreover, the statement “We have made you into a middle community,” occurs in the middle verse of the sura: the sura has 286 verses, and this declaration occurs in verse 143.[2]  This serves to highlight the change of prayer direction towards the Ka‘ba built by Abraham, and the establishment of the Muslim community, as the central feature of this sura.

4. The Foundations of Islam

From the above, we see that the Hajj (and hence, ‘Eid al-Adha) is a commemoration of the tradition of islām—submission to the One God—that traces back to Abraham, and which was restored during the prophetic mission of Muhammad (peace be upon them).  It is also a celebration of the prayer of Abraham as he built the Ka‘ba with Ishmael, which was fulfilled in the establishment of the Muslim nation, formalized by the change of prayer direction to the Sacred House.  The Ka‘ba is the symbol of this nation—a “sanctuary” and “place of return for mankind”; Mecca is its spiritual capital; the Qur’an is its constitution; and the days of Hajj and ‘Eid al-Adha are among its holidays.  In sum, during these these days, we commemorate the faith, sacrifice, and submission of Abraham; remember him as our spiritual forefather; recall how he revived monotheism and consecrated the Ka‘ba to the worship of God; and how that monotheism was again restored by Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Qur’an, in fulfillment of Abraham’s prayer.

As Islam is the “religion of Abraham,” the other four pillars of Islam also go back to him:

1. The first pillar is to testify that there is nothing to worthy of worship except Allah, and that Muhammad is His Messenger.  The connection with Abraham is obvious, since it is he who revived monotheism when the world was immersed in idol worship, and the role of Muhammad’s mission was to restore the legacy of Abraham (peace be upon them).

2. The ritual prayer, or ṣalāh, is rooted in Abraham’s supplication, “My Lord, make me an establisher of the prayer, and many from my descendants” (14:40).  Moreover, during the prayer direct ourselves towards the Ka‘ba, the Sacred House built by Abraham.

3. The poor-due, or zakāh, harks back to Abraham through his son Ishmael: “And mention in the scripture Ishmael.  He was true to his promise and was a prophet-messenger; and he used to enjoin prayer and the poor-due, and he was pleasing to His Lord” (19:54-55).

4. The obligation to fast during Ramadan was revealed in Surat al-Baqara, following the formal establishment of the Muslim umma.  According to this passage, the purpose of Ramadan is to commemorate the Qur’an:

It was in the month of Ramadan that the Qur’an was revealed as guidance for mankind, clear messages giving guidance and distinguishing between right and wrong.  So any one of you who is present that month should fast…He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful (2:185). 

The revelation of the Qur’an, as we have seen before, was the fulfillment of Abraham’s prayer.  Hence, all five pillars of Islam go back to Abraham.

5. The Hajj as a Divine Miracle

We saw above that Allah says in Surat al-Baqara,

We made the House a center for mankind. (2:125)

The word for center, mathāba, denotes “a place that is much frequented and serves as a point of congregation for people.”[3]  The Qur’an is filled with divine promises that Muhammad and his followers would conquer Mecca, liberate the Ka‘ba from idolatry, and restore it as a center for the worship of One God.  It also contains indications that the Prophet’s message would be a universal one.  The majority of these prophecies were revealed in the Meccan period, while the Muslims were still a small, persecuted minority, without any tangible hope of accomplishing such lofty aspirations.

Today, millions of men and women around the world travel each year to Mecca for Hajj.  When visiting the Ka‘ba, they recall the legacy of Abraham and the fulfilled prophecy of the success of the mission of the Prophet and his companions.  By participating in the rites of Hajj with millions of other believers, they are also reminded of the spread of the Abrahamic message from a small, persecuted religious group in Mecca, to now every corner of the globe.  This message is that God is One and that all human beings are equally His creatures and servants.  The Hajj is the largest gathering of people from all races, nationalities, languages, and social classes in the world.  As they pray together and circle around the Ka‘ba in harmony, they are united in the worship of God and the acknowledgement of human equality, of which the Ka‘ba is a symbol.  The Hajj is a veritable miracle of Islam—a living testimony to the fulfillment of the divine promises to Abraham reported in the Qur’an and the previous scriptures.

Further reading:
·      F.E. Peters, The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (Princeton University Press, 2010).
·      Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam(Princeton University Press, 2012).
·      Neal Robinson, “Surat Al ‘Imran and Those with the Greatest Claim to Abraham,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies 6, no. 2 (2004): 1-21.
·      Angelika Neuwirth, “The House of Abraham and the House of Amram,” in The Qur’an in Context, pp. 499-503.
·      Mustansir Mir, Understanding the Islamic Scripture: A Study of Selected Passages from the Qur’an (N.p.: Pearson Education, 2008), pp. 29-34.
·      Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature (Euless, TX: Bayyinah Institute, 2016), pp. 195-212, 224-231.

[1] A parallel account in 14:35-41 reports the settling of Mecca by Abraham: “Our Lord, I have established some of my offspring in an uncultivated valley, close to Your Sacred House, Lord, so that they may keep up the prayer. Make people’s hearts turn to them, and provide them with produce, so that they may be thankful” (14:37).
[2] See Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa, Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature (Euless, TX: Bayyinah Institute, 2016), pp. 209-210.
[3] Mir, 31.

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