Conversation with Qays Arthur on Monotheism
- Blog Post by: Fedwa Wazwaz
- January 2, 2012 - 9:32 AM
Say ye: "We believe in Allah,
and the revelation given to us,
and to Abraham, Isma'il, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes,
and that given to Moses and Jesus,
and that given to (all) prophets from their Lord:
We make no difference between one and another of them:
And we bow to Allah (in Islam)."
Wazwaz: Shaykh Qays - I appreciate your taking the time to discuss some questions with me. As an educator, I believe ignorance is a disease that contributes to the many problems that we see around us. To resolve any problem - I believe that we need to first start with seeking knowledge in breadth and in depth.
However, as a holistic researcher, I believe knowledge without understanding has no value in it; therefore you must seek and arrive at a holistic understanding of any situation before moving toward possible solutions. Correct me if I am wrong, but I feel that factoids or cut and paste data are an attempted representation, an artificial replication of the truth and the true reality they try to conceal.
Shaykh Qays: I tend to agree. If knowledge were merely data retention then inanimate objects could be described knowledgeable. Real knowledge always returns to meaning, purpose, and application and those all require understanding. With regard to "factoids" and the like they are, when true, like seeds. What becomes of them depends entirely on the one who listens to or reads them. What concerns me in an age of "factoids" is the way they seem to be used only to reinforce suggestions and assumptions rather than as points of departure for greater inquiry. From that standpoint the deluge of data that the information age has unleashed may prove to be the greatest barrier to informed inquiry yet since it isn't possible for the average person to take away more than suggestion from the endless stream of information to which were constantly exposed.
Wazwaz: Here is my first question to you. I have done many presentations on Islam and Muslims - to a wide range of audiences. One odd thing that puzzles me overtime - is that many people either believe that Muslims believe in an idol located in the Kabbah in Makkah or some special Muslim God that is separate from the God that Christians and Jews worship.
In the last presentation I did to a group - I started to explain Muslims' understanding of God, when someone yelled - this is not the same God. As I looked at faces across the room - there was confusion, disbelief, or heads shaking. Being that you were a Christian once and a teacher in Islam now, can you describe your own feelings on the understanding of God in your journey? Did you feel when you accepted Islam - that you now worship a totally different Muslim God?
Shaykh Qays: Well, to be fair, while I am from a Christian background I never considered myself a Christian. I read, and was quite attached to, Old Testament Bible stories as a child and had a love for Jesus and Biblical movies but I had never believed Jesus was God. As a child, doing things like acting the part of Moses in a church play, and singing about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Bethlehem and so on in choir developed in me an affinity with the distant places and the Semitic origins barley perceivable in the Catholic Church. Most Christians in Guyana see Bible stories and lands as distant almost fantasy places of little or no relevance to their lives. But for me, in retrospect it seems clear, beneath the European church lore, and the exotic desert scenes with artificially darkened actors in movies like The Ten Commandments there were indications of a real holiness that came, not from Rome nor Hollywood, from the Middle East. That association of Semitic peoples and lands with holiness would later play a great role in my deciding to become Muslim.
That decision arose from a complex process. It wasn't as straightforward and academic as I had at one point considered. There was a time when I was literally going to Church and Mosque at the same time!
The only reason I investigated Islam further as opposed to Hinduism or Baha'ism is because of that Biblical, Semitic affinity. In the end, the ways of the Muslims (who are people of Indian origin in Guyana) their beliefs and laws - grounded as they are in an Arab ethos along with the clear and thoroughgoing monotheism and imposing ritual component (five daily prayers seems like monastery life to a non-Muslim) - rang true to me as authentic by a Biblical, particularly Old Testament, standard as opposed to the Catholics (with their pipe organs, icons, and saints) and Protestants (with their church "Rock" bands, and "ministries of plenty and prosperity").
In my teens I experienced many things - house parties that church-going friends saw no harm in attending, being told by a friend who would later became pregnant out of wedlock that her pastor advised her to simply not go beyond "kissing and light petting" while Islam's gender rules were "extreme", there was a moral chaos in high-school that appeared to affect everyone except Muslims. On the other hand, the unencumbered simplicity of the Mosque, the power of prostration, and the moral clarity of the Sharia apparent even in non-observant Muslims whose understanding of moral conduct was grounded in law and not in the opinions of pastors all sent a message to me. Muhammad was like Jacob and Moses- the correct path was becoming quite clear.
So at no point did I, after actually going to a Mosque and reading the Quran, consider that the God of the Quran and the Bible were different. I believe that the cultural, scholastic, and spiritual disconnection between western Christianity and the holy lands of the Middle East plays a great part in western misconceptions about God in Islam. Christians perceive no lack of authenticity in their religion despite that thorough disconnection.
It therefore makes sense that a religion as thoroughly Semitic as Islam would be unrecognizable to them despite what is in their own books! Yet that disconnection is only perpetuated when we treat the Bible and Christianity as alien to our faith or when we look upon ourselves as some new, independent community as opposed to simply believers in God's final Prophet (peace be upon him) who continue in the legacy of the prophets of the Bible (peace be upon them all). That is how I see Islam to this very day and that view is to be found right at the beginning of the Quran in Sura Baqara(chapter 2), where it is absolutely clear that the Speaker is the very same God who revealed scripture prior to the Quran. For me experience and scripture prove this without doubt.
Wazwaz: Because Muslims do not believe in the divinity of Jesus, upon him be peace - does this mean we worship two different Gods? How do Muslims reconcile that we worship the same God, but not accept the divinity of Jesus, upon him peace? See the following questions a person sent to the first blog as an example. Can you answer them briefly at once?
1. I would like to know the thought process of someone that acknowledges that Jesus was born of a virgin, and recognizes the many miracles that He performed on earth, without recognizing His divine nature. If that happened today, there would be a worldwide celebrity type following.
2. The question I asked boils down to the rejection that Jesus was crucified and rose again. Why do Muslims believe that it wasn't him on the cross, in spite of the fact his own mother was there to witness it. I doubt that being stripped and hung to die publicly would result in a mistaken identity. Or if it was cloaked to look like him, what reason would God have for doing that? Curious as to how Muslims come to that belief when the Jewish priests were right there cheering His death on.
3. What is your studied answer to my questions? Not what does an instructor say, but you've studied the Quran, and at least have heard the Christian version of events, how do you reject the Christian version? You know that the virgin birth happened; many miracles were done, so how do you come to rationalize the fact that a public killing of a well-known person is denied to have happened as reported by more than several people? I just want to hear your thought process on this. And it must be more than that's what we've been taught, how did you personally come to reject the divinity of Jesus?
Shaykh Qays: Before commenting on my personal experience it must be said that when it comes to the divinity of Jesus Muslims are quite similar to Jews so there isn't much to reconcile as such. We worship the God of Abraham and we do not worship anything besides Him, Most High. If not believing in the divinity of Jesus means that one is worshiping another God then that would mean that the Jews worship another God. Of course neither Muslims nor Jews worship another God.
This is very much my own experience since, as I mentioned, I was quite influenced by the Old Testament. The Old Testament is filled with wonderful stories of prophets, miracles, and people of monotheism putting up with great adversity just for the God of Israel. I always saw miracles as coming from God not proof that the one doing it is God. In particular the stories in Daniel- Daniel himself being in the lion's den and being unharmed was the result of his refusing to worship a man, the same is true of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who made a particular impression on me as they were just Jewish youths (not prophets as such as I recall) who refused to worship any other God and refused to worship a man.
The story of Moses is much the same. From the Bible it is clear that prophets don't worship men they worship God and their lives are filled with magnificent miracles. So the first time I heard (in a Sunday school class) that Jesus is God I remember saying, "But he is a man." and the nun said "Yes. And he is God." and I asked "How can he be a man and God?" She said that such questions should not be asked. But the thing is that I wasn't asking a question of logic (which is what we learn in Muslim theology) I was asking a question of faith based on all the stories of the Old Testament where people of faith do not worship men.
So I say plainly that the Old Testament is the reason I do not accept the divinity of Jesus and the reason I accept the Quran as well. For me it's not about the details, they say the devil is in the details, well that applies here in a different sense. In contrast to the abstruse and often strained scriptural readings and interpretations of particular verses that are used to prove the divinity on one hand or the blind acceptance on the other, and the moral and theological force of the stories themselves, replete with miracles and signs, is clear. There is only one God. He is not a man. Worship Him and none besides. It is the very first commandment.
Wazwaz: Can you discuss the interactions of Muslims and people of other faiths in Guyana. Touching on your own experiences, what did you find different or unique of Christians in Guyana and elsewhere?
Shaykh Qays: In Guyana there is a high degree of mutual respect among people of different faiths. Our shared colonial experience probably plays a part in that. I don't believe that Christians in Guyana are fundamentally different from those elsewhere (in other former British colonies) while people generally have high regard for the Bible they don't necessarily look favorably upon Churches and European religious institutions.
Wazwaz: Did you feel the need to be antagonistic to people of other faiths now that you are a Muslim? The criticism is that once a person accepts Islam - they become more hostile to people of other faiths.
Shaykh Qays: To be honest I did go through a phase of hostility in high-school. So I don't think that that criticism is without merit but it is a phase and it comes more from a fervor or zeal after having found an evasive truth that now seems obvious than a need to be antagonistic in itself. Also very often a natural atmosphere of conflict develops when suddenly your convictions and outlook are significantly at variance with that of those around you- that certainly plays a part. But once one becomes immersed in the teachings of the Quran and the ways of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) that initial state passes. In that sense a general posture of antagonism is a sign of a lack of understanding and practice of Islam - a sign that one is just in from the cold and that one needs to mature in the faith. It is not an indication of the nature of the religion of Islam itself.
Wazwaz: When we do a presentation on Islam and Muslims - there is very little awareness of what Muslims believe. Yet, the same presentation given to a group of Arab Christians - would be totally different conversation. For example, we do not need to explain that Allah means one and only God, as they use the name Allah for God as well. What did you notice that was different and unique of Arab Christians in Jordan? And how was the interaction with them different than with Christians in Guyana? What positive experiences can you share?
Shaykh Qays: Naturally, Arab Christians whose Christianity is, thus far, independent of Europe have a far greater understanding of Islam than their western counterparts. You are absolutely correct about the simple matter of the name "Allah" for God which is and has always been used by Arab Christians for God. In fact when I encounter those who try to say that Allah is some other God than the one called to in the Bible I normally say that that proposition should first be taken to Christian Arabs who have apparently been unaware of that detail for hundreds and hundreds of years! In Jordan I find the Christians to be a dignified minority who are not afraid to identify themselves with their faith and who have respect for their Muslim neighbors and are likewise respected. One of the things that stands out about Jordan as opposed to Guyana is that proselytizing either way is not as a prominent an aspect of Muslim/Christian interaction here, as opposed to in Guyana. Now while many commentators point to laws that prohibit Christians proselytizing to Muslims as a cause, it does appear to me that, contrary to that thesis, that it is simply because the two groups understand each other well enough to not feel the need to be constantly preaching to each other which is a good thing.
Wazwaz: Currently in the US there is fear on all sides. Healthy fear pushes people to know. Unhealthy fear pushes people to insularity. Some people fear Islam taking over, and some Muslims fear the FBI, CIA, hate crimes, civil rights violations, etc., Both fear terrorism and extremism. People like to forget that Muslims died on 9/11 as well. How can Muslims, focus on Muslims in your answer - respond by overriding their fear and trust God by nurturing genuine concern and engagement with people of other faiths? How can they move beyond validation to trusting God and seeking guidance in these difficult times?
Shaykh Qays: The short answer to this question is that fear of Muslims is a sign of ignorance of the religion and ignorance of the religion on the part of people who live in the midst of Muslims is a sign that something is certainly wrong. Perhaps we have not made enough of an effort to be genuine to our own teachings while reaching out to our neighbors and that is why it is so easy for fear to be spread through ignorance. It may very well be that, as counter intuitive as it may seem, that the time to reach out with faith, and in good faith is now. I really wonder whether boycotts and legislation are the correct way to address ignorance and fear and I'm not at all convinced that they are.
It does seem, though, that whatever steps may be taken at the community level, that we all need to learn and apply more of our religion at the personal level as this will help us to: live the message of Muhammad (peace be upon him) which is perhaps the best way of teaching that message to others, and it will help us, with Allah's permission, to be prepared for any adversity that may come our way through knowledge of and closeness to the Truth. Otherwise we will simply become a tribulation for ourselves as well as those around us. We seek refuge in Allah from that.
If we could call up the faith to take this period of trial as an opportunity to take responsibility and to take the eternal message of the Quran to our own hearts, households, neighbors and communities with greater motivation and genuineness, turning to Allah with our entire lives then we would have achieved a mighty victory for ourselves and our neighbors. And we ask Allah for success.
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