This essay is part of the Islamic Moral Theology and the Future (IMTF) Project, co-led by Maria Dakake and Martin Nguyen. It is specifically part of the roundtable discussion that is responding to Dakake’s opening essay for the project. See Nguyen’s opening essay for a parallel line of inquiry.
Parts of what is called modern Europe saw the arrival of Jews and Judaism over two thousand years ago. Following which, approximately two thousand years ago, Europe saw the spread of Christianity. Christians of Jewish heritage were the first to bring Christianity to Europe, after which it was received by many among Europe’s ‘indigenous’ population. In the late seventh century CE, Islam and Muslims expanded into southern Europe. These migrations of the three Semitic religions brought about a this-worldly neighborliness among Jews, Christians, and Muslims across the Western Hemisphere. They lived in peace, but also in war, and in this part of the world, it was Jews who particularly suffered the consequences of being disowned by one’s neighbor. If we consider the huge expanse of the earth from the Urals to the California coastline in the west, focusing only on Europe and North America, we will see that these three religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – are still dominant, whether by virtue of the number of their followers or of their historical influence and heritage.
Historically speaking, Moses, Jesus and Muhammed were all ethnically and linguistically Semitic. With their teachings about a single, universal God, and their ethical teachings about neighborliness, these three famous “Semites” religiously ‘colonized’ a major part of the Western Hemisphere, which was not originally Semitic. But if we go back to the original, Asian homeland of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, to the small and initially humble Semitic neighborhood between Jerusalem and the Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina, we can see that, historically speaking, Christianity can be seen as a restoration and dynamization of Judaism, while Islam is in some ways a synthesis of the previous Judaic and Christian (i.e., monotheist) Semitic religious genius.
“[T]he plurality of different faiths and places of worship would not have manifested in this way had the followers of all three faiths – Jews, Christians and Muslims – not been aware of neighborliness and its great moral significance.”
One can endlessly debate why, historically speaking, the Semitic religious genius branched into these three segments – Judaism, Christianity and Islam; but perhaps it would be better to consider how through this branching, the Semitic religious genius also connected and merged. While the conflicts between these religious groups often gets the most attention, these three religious civilizations also built and lived through powerful and intellectually and culturally productive epochs of neighborliness, for example, the centuries of interreligious coexistence in Andalusia, which saw significant advances in philosophy and art. We can even consider Islam’s early days, when it conquered Jerusalem without a drop of blood shed; with the arrival of Islam, mosques were built in addition to the existing churches and synagogues. This example was replicated across many Middle Eastern cities: Damascus, Cairo, Istanbul – all were homes to the three faiths that shared histories of both cooperation and conflict. But no one can deny long periods of peace and neighborliness in various countries and cities of the Middle East. This is something that Islam undoubtedly contributed to quite significantly. One thing is certain: the plurality of different faiths and places of worship would not have manifested in this way had the followers of all three faiths – Jews, Christians and Muslims – not been aware of neighborliness and its great moral significance.
The issue of neighborliness is something that this author holds to be the most important moral charge today. Not only because there are more than eight billion people on the earth, but because it becomes increasingly obvious that the communication technology, which is touted as creating “virtual” neighbors and neighborhoods, is more often used to disunite humanity than to connect it. The illusions generated by technology can never be a substitute for God, or for our a priori knowledge that we are all His creations, that we are created to live as neighbors to one another. I will leave it to my Jewish and Christian colleagues and theologians to explain the notions of neighborliness that they would offer to the burgeoning and complicated humanity of the contemporary world. I will now focus my discussion what the Qur’an can offer to us today in terms of affirming and refreshing various notions of neighborliness.
“If Christians divide their scripture into the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures) and the New Testament, then it would not be wrong to see the Qur’an as the “Newest Testament.” “
If Christians divide their scripture into the Old Testament (the Hebrew scriptures) and the New Testament, then it would not be wrong to see the Qur’an as the “Newest Testament.” It is extremely important for Muslims that the Qur’an or the “Newest Testament” be open to universal interpretations. The Qur’an identifies two important principles that bear upon our common humanity. First, God is one; He, the One and Only, the Creator of all people, all creatures. Therefore, our origin in God’s decision to create us is something we all have in common. According to the Qur’an, we all originate from the divine “Kun!” (Be!) that the one and only God said to each of His creations in the act of creating itself (cf. Q, 36:82). Second, the Qur’an clearly presents Adam and Eve as the primal parents of all of humanity (cf. Q, 49:13). We are all their children; and this original kinship is a very significant basis for the ethics of good neighborliness.
But this unity of humankind through One Creator and through one parental pair, Adam and Eve, does not mean that the Qur’an sees humanity as a monolithic row of ducks following one upon the other. On the contrary, in many places the Qur’an testifies to, or more precisely, celebrates, a humanity that is diverse in all its religions (Q, 2:62), languages (Q, 30:22), skin colors (Q, 30:22), religious laws and ways (Q, 5:48), etc. As the last divine revelation, the Qur’an has taken significant steps toward the recognition of different kinds of pluralism within the entirety humanity. It is this universal humanity that God appeals to from pages of the Qur’an: “O you who believe! Enter into peaceful neighborliness (al-silm)!” (Q, 2:208). While some commentators have interpreted al-silm as a reference to islam, or “submission” (which is its cognate), the primary mean of al-silm is “peace.”
At the same time, how can we sustain or support humanity’s peaceful living in pluralism of different sorts, including religious pluralism? There is no doubt that the ethics of neighborliness provide the most important answer to this question. For, neighborliness is a moral principle and the only one that can support peaceful survival of humanity.
“[H]ow can we sustain or support humanity’s peaceful living in pluralism of different sorts, including religious pluralism? There is no doubt that the ethics of neighborliness provide the most important answer to this question.”
Let us begin with the statement that, according to the Qur’an, neighborliness among religions and people is not so complicated after all. A number of Qur’anic passages, including Qur’an 6:151-153 and 17:22-39 proclaim the right of all people to life, to moral integrity, to dignity, to property, and the right of the weak to protection. The Qur’an understands these rights to be interpreted and applied through universal human submission to God, to which all people are naturally predisposed according to the Islamic worldview. The Divine Word of the Qur’an thus encourages human being to see their relationship with God as a basis for neighborliness with other people. That is to say, for all the rights listed above (which some Arabic commentators of the Qur’an refer to as “the ten commandments,” al-waṣāyā al-ʻasharu), God is the eternal guarantor.
From the Muslim perspective, then, neighborliness as a moral principle should be derived from God. Indeed, according to the Qur’an, God is human beings’ closest neighbor, as He is said to be closer to them than their own “veins” (Q 50:16). Furthermore, God will – not only as our Creator but also as our neighbor – respond when we approach Him (Q 2:186). On several occasions, the Qur’an reminds us that God is “very nigh” to us (Q 2:186; 7:56; 11:61). The Qur’an speaks repeatedly about an ‘immanent” God, who is immediately next to His creatures, and who spreads tapestries and gardens of His Mercy before everything that is created, including humanity.
Regrettably, in the age of many ideological interpretations of the Qur’an in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Muslims have sometimes forgotten about the moral and spiritual interpretations of the Qur’an. We have neglected the Qur’anic notion of iḥsān or goodness and beneficence. A well-known hadith describes iḥsān as meaning to “worship God as if you see Him, and if you cannot see Him, then indeed He sees you!” This famous Islamic saying implies a number of things, but primarily bashfulness as a moral value—that is, a certain sense of moral caution, or even shame in light of God’s constant witnessing of our actions. It would be good if Muslim literalists and contemporary “ideological commentators” of the Qur’an had at least some moral caution or “bashfulness” before God when writing commentaries on the Qur’an that often repel both Muslims and non-Muslims from Islam.
The most important thing to be contemplated in the Qur’an today is the way in which it gathers all religious dignitaries of the monotheistic past to a kind of spiritual feast, in which all of their wisdom is collected together. In this way, the Qur’an effectively establishes one human, spiritual “neighborhood.” Everyone in this neighborhood belongs to humanity. From Adam and Eve to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses Mary and Jesus, the Qur’an’s gathering of these prophets and their stories into a single “story” encourages neighborliness, and we should learn from this neighborliness. But are Muslims today willing and ready to support this neighborliness in religious, intellectual, spiritual, civilizational and cultural terms? And to promote it in every possible way?
“The most important thing to be contemplated in the Qur’an today is the way in which it gathers all religious dignitaries of the monotheistic past to a kind of spiritual feast, in which all of their wisdom is collected together. In this way, the Qur’an effectively establishes one human, spiritual “neighborhood.””
We as Muslims must also be self-critical, recognizing where we have neglected neighborliness even amongst ourselves. It is sufficient to look at statistics of how many Muslims have been expelled by other Muslims from their homes and regions, thus being turned into refugees deprived of neighborliness. The author of this essay cried, not only for besieged Sarajevo (1992-1995), but also when he watched thousands of Muslims from North Africa, the Middle East, and other Muslim countries come through the small country of Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2016-2020. I saw Muslim refugees, I saw human beings deprived of neighborliness.
Returning to the issue of neighborly relations with other religious communities, particularly Christians and Jews, we should also mention that classical commentaries on the Qur’an, for instance that by al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) or al-Suyūṭī (d. 1505), speak quite a lot about Adam, Noah, Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, Moses, Mary, Jesus. These commentaries relate many precious narratives about these figures, which were technically termed isrāʼīliyyāt or Jewish and Christian religious stories. Yet it is important to remember that premodern Muslims regarded these stories (isrāʼīliyyāt) as their own, as islāmiyyāt, finding in them moral lessons and instruction. This is to say that, in their religious writings, Muslims “met” Jews and Christians just as they met Jews and Christians in their streets, shops, squares, or blocks in multireligious cities of the great Muslim empires. Classical Muslim authors were acutely aware of the piety and neighborliness that the Qur’an and Muhammad’s prophetic mission had made possible.
“It is little wonder that neighborliness is in crisis today, even within traditionally Muslim societies, given the loss or de-emphasis of Islamic morality stories in which Muslims were to take all of the prophets as models of neighborliness, humility, honor, piety, and nobility.”
Unfortunately, some modern, ideological commentaries of the Qur’an have reduced this rich past, which is also part of the Islamic tradition, by banishing Isrāʼīliyyāt accounts from their works. At the same time, the Prophet Muhammad is reduced primarily to his role as a ‘statesman,’ ‘warrior,’ and an ‘enemy to the unbelievers,’ presenting him as harsh and intolerant. It is little wonder that neighborliness is in crisis today, even within traditionally Muslim societies, given the loss or de-emphasis of Islamic morality stories in which Muslims were to take all of the prophets as models of neighborliness, humility, honor, piety, and nobility.
The original and universal concept of “Islam” as found in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, continues to provide important spiritual resources to support and promote an ethics of neighborliness across humanity. One can read Qur’anic and Prophetic teachings to imply a principle of freedom, which can be summed up as: “To each their own religion, but neighborly care to everyone!” In remembering these principles, we might revive the same neighborliness that the Prophet Muhammad upheld himself, by gathering rather than dispersing, by spreading joy rather than hate.
Enes Karić (born 1958 in Travnik, Bosnia and Herzegovina) is a professor of Qur’anic and Islamic Studies at Faculty of Islamic Studies, University of Sarajevo. From 1994-1996 he served as Minister of Education and Science in the Government of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2003, he was elected to the position of the Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Sarajevo, serving in this position until 2007. Dr. Karić has delivered lectures at Yale University, as well as at various universities in Ljubljana, Boston, Zagreb, Istanbul, and Leiden. During the 2008-2009 academic year, he was the Allianz Guest Professor of Islamic Studies at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. He has published dozens of books on the hermeneutics of the Qur’an, modern trends in Islam, and Islam and Europe among other topics. He is also the author of several well-received novels, including Songs of Wild Birds, The Jewish Cemetery, Man by Accident, Cherry Colors, Godʼs Slaves.