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by Jennie S. Bev

The holy month of Ramadan has come. It is Kairos time for Muslims worldwide, a special time of the year when the truth will appear, blessings are abundant, and peace fills the air. In this special month, we should remember those who are unfortunates and embrace those who are different from us. It is also good timing to reflect upon how we can spread kindness and compassion to others. After all, The Koran* is a text of compassion, pluralism, and free will. And above all, God is the most compassionate of all. (*another spelling is The Qur’an)

The first verse of The Koran reminds us loud and clear that compassion is the source of all goodness and embracing Islam means first and foremost adhering to this principle, “In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy.” And by “compassion,” it applies to all without any discrimination. The Chapter of Al-Imran 3:84 stated, “Say Muhammad, ‘Muslims believe in God and in what has been sent down to us and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes. We believe in what has been given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets of their Lord. We do not make a distinction between any of the prophets. It is to God that we devote ourselves.’”

An example of how early Muslims have been embracing other religions can be seen in the various works of ethics and popular devotions, works of Adab, works of Sufism, and anthologies of wisdom. There, Jesus’ words have been passed on from generation to generation, according to Jarif Khalidi, Director of the Center of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

As a text of pluralism, The Chapter of Feast 5:48 stated, “If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but He wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so compete to do good.” And as a text of free will, The Chapter of Jonah 10:99 stated, “Had your Lord willed, all the people on earth would have believed.”

It is clear that The Koran acknowledges diversity and pluralism as it is what God has intended us to experience. Even as a non-Muslim, I find this quite comforting. After all, whenever we use reason to comprehend contradictory phenomena around us, we usually arrive to a conclusion that everything must be understood within its historical and socio-political context. And there is no exception in understanding The Koran and other religions’ holy scriptures.

Thus, we should remind ourselves that good theology makes us more faithful, more understanding, and more compassionate to others, including toward those who are different from us. On the other hand, bad theology makes our hearts hardened, our soul more fragile, and our mind more filthy and filled with violence and oppressive thoughts. Using faith, reason and free will, we should be able to distinguish which is which.

Farid Esack in Qur’an Liberation and Pluralism: an Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity against Oppression opened the path for understanding a religion, in this particular case is Islam, within the context of an oppressive regime. The backdrop of this book is the apartheid South Africa. Esack argued that a theology of liberation works towards freeing religion from social, political and religious structures and ideas based on uncritical obedience and the freedom of all people from all forms of injustice and exploitation including those of race, gender, class and religion. This theology is based on the presumption that reconstructing a society must be done with principles of justice, freedom, honesty and integrity, which can be found in The Koran.

While it might be true that any religion’s holy scripture contains verses that encourage exclusivism, we should handle them carefully, yet never denunciate them entirely and never interpret them literally. Since The Koran itself is neither a systematic disposition nor a set of chronologically arranged revelations, it requires special trainings to decipher, to analyze, and to eventually synthesize the messages within past and present frameworks.

The notion of kufr or disbelief itself might sound ambiguous as it can be interpreted in many ways. However, we should think that this ambiguity provides an opportunity for re-definition and transcendence. And it would be wise to return to important verses that elucidate the notions of compassion, pluralism, and free will as a solid theological foundation that overrides historical-contextual exclusivism that is obsolete in modern 21st century pluralistic societies. Farid Esack further said that it has been customarily and theologically easier to focus on categorizations of “the other” in The Koran rather than overcoming divisions of the past.

Abdulaziz Sachedina, Professor of Religious Studies at University of Virginia and Senior Associate at Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC stated that the selective and political appropriation of the Koran in legitimizing a de facto hegemony over the other has aimed to overlook the human dimensions of theology. For modern Indonesian Islamic scholars, it is both a challenge and an opportunity to set an example for the whole world to follow. We need to ensure that the Indonesian strain of Islam transcends differences and embraces pluralism and multiculturalism. Because, only this way, we can save the future and live together in harmony.

Finally, there are many ways to God and there are many ways to be a devotee. May this Ramadan makes us more compassionate and understanding towards others.[]

 Tempo English, September 9, 2009 

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