Faith & Reason: The journey from sin to deviance to choice

Misconceptions about Islam - which is a faith of forgiveness not harshness- tell us something revealing about our society's shifting moral landscape
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The Independent Culture
ON TUESDAY Muslims observe Laylah-al-Barat. This night, which falls in the middle of the Islamic month of Sha'ban, saw Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, begin his preparations for Ramadan with earnest prayer and supplication for mercy and forgiveness. Pious Muslims with even more need than the Prophet to seek forgiveness, will stay awake late into the night or rise early in the morning to emulate their Prophet - reciting the Qur'an, penitent in prayer, humbly asking that their sins are forgiven and repentance is accepted.

Ask a hundred people the first word that enters their head when the word "Islam" is mentioned and there are no prizes for guessing what four or five words will be at the top of the list. Certainly a propensity for self-criticism, forgiveness and mercy will not be among them, though vengeance might. Last year a computer check of newspaper word associations showed that Christianity was associated with positive terms whileIslam was routinely associated with: terrorism, fundamentalism, militancy and extremism. That this represents an unfair distortion is an understatement, but where does the problem lie?

Certainly, from a believer's perspective, it is not with the faith itself. Contrary to this image it has of unforgiving harshness, Islam means "peace" and mercy is one of the key motifs which runs throughout its teachings. When Allah decreed creation, He wrote in His book "My mercy overtakes My wrath" (Divinely inspired saying). Two of the best known Names of God are: al Rahman (the Beneficent ) and al Rahim (the Merciful) and these two words are meditated upon and used in the daily routines of Muslims.

The Qur'an says "Allah loves those who do good and who - having done something to be ashamed of or having wronged their own souls - earnestly bring Him into mind and ask for forgiveness for their sins - and who can forgive sins except Him" (Surah 3: 134). In another place, believers are enjoined to be forgiving and merciful to others "Forgive and overlook (the harm done by others to you). Do you not wish that Allah should forgive you? For Allah is oft-Forgiving, most Merciful" (Surah 24:22).

An apocryphal Islamic traditional story illustrates how even the worst of sinners can hope for forgiveness and redemption if they repent sincerely: A man murders 99 people and then begins to feel remorse. He goes to see a sage and asks him if there is any hope of forgiveness. The man says "No" and so the miscreant, in anger, kills the sage too. He then meets another wise man. He tells the man that he wants to repent and asks if there is any hope that his repentance will be accepted. This man says "Yes" - but advises the penitent to go to another town and start a new and goodly life there. On his journey the man dies and because he was well on the way to achieving true belief and was sincere in repentance, he will be admitted to Paradise.

Forgiveness is even institutionalised in the Muslim criminal justice system so that a person who has been wronged (or a victim's family) can, if he/they so wish, formally forgive the criminal, even a murderer, so that the man is spared the penalty prescribed in law. Instead of retribution, there is compensation. In fact it is considered an act of great merit to pardon in this way and Imam Ali (peace be upon him) said: "Lacking a forgiving nature is the worst of deficiencies and hastening to vengeance is the worst of sins."

Yet when this aspect of Islamic law was publicised by the Saudi nurses murder case during 1997 and 1998, reference to this provision in Islamic law was pejoratively termed "blood money". History, politics, racism, xenophobia, neo-colonialism, and economics all may have a part to play in the demonisation of Islam. Then there are the reprehensible activities of Muslims, both here and in the Muslim world, which earn the just opprobrium of not just the secular liberal community but a clear majority of devout Muslims too. But it can't be just the acts themselves: terrorism, "forced" marriage, extremism, genocide, because there are members of other identifiable religious and community groups globally and locally that also commit such evils and they are not demonised in the same way.

Hypocrisy? Perhaps. But even as I was writing this and particularly as I copied the verses of Qur'an and prophetic saying, I was naggingly conscious of how incongruous a read it would make for non-believers. Is it just me or is there a shared sense that that there is increasingly little space in liberal secular society or in its modes of discourse for those who uphold and maintain the traditional connection between God and goodness, believe that revelation was legislation because God knows what is right and what is wrong and who want to be free to make moral judgments without being regarded as judgmental?

A form of cultural totalitarianism - perhaps not quite - yet. "The gradual transformation by which sin becomes immorality, immorality becomes deviance, deviance becomes choice and all choice becomes legitimate is a profound redrawing of our moral landscape" - so said Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his 1990 BBC Reith Lecture Series - Muslims, like other believers, struggle to maintain a place in this landscape. Comforting to know then that we can always find a way to God and for many the path to Him will be particularly illuminated next Tuesday.

Sarah Sheriff writes for `Muslim News'