Transferring Islamic knowledge from Arabic to English has never been made easier.
Transferring Islamic knowledge from Arabic to English has never been made easier.
Islamic media table at Rain Taxi book festival at the Fairgrounds 10/12/2013
Author: Joyce Slaughter
We can see that in some ways Qur’an can be compared to a Roman Catholic understanding of sacraments, especially the Eucharist. There are some ways in which the comparison falls short, however. Two key points come to mind: sacraments are meant to be communal celebrations and some sacraments are a means of initiation into the church, or Christian community.
Chauvet reminds us that the “agent of celebration (of the sacraments) is the church as understood in the primary meaning of the assembly.”1 It is Christ, in the person of the priest, who presides during the Eucharist. Since Christians are the “Body of Christ” they, too, are presiding“(T)he assembly is the active sacramental mediation of (Christ’s) his action”. In other words, according to many sacramental theologians, the entire community, priest and people, are necessary for sacramental action.
However, the believer does not need to read, recite, or meditate on the Qur’an communally for her to receive benefits. Some Islamic scholars teach that the Qur’an existed eternally with Allah. This eternal existence seems to preclude the requirement of the community being a necessity to the Qur’an’s existence.
Another difference is that sacraments, especially Baptism, are a means of initiation into the church, or Christian community. Even in infant baptism, the parents, godparents, as well as the entire community promise to nurture the child into adult faith. Chauvet claims sacraments are essential to Christian identity. “Every sacrament shows (Christians ) how to see and live what transforms our human existence into a properly Christian existence.”2
On the contrary, in Islam an infant does not need a rite to enter into the community of believers. Muslims believe everyone is born a Muslim. It is only our parents who change us into believers of another religion. The Quran says that Allah called forth all the souls of humanity from the loins of Adam to bear witness to Him and they all replied, “We bear witness.” It is the witness statement, or shahada, that is whispered into the ear of every newborn Muslim. It is this same statement that every convert to Islam proclaims to effect his conversion. All Muslims proclaim it in their daily prayers. “There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Messenger.” The Qur’an isn’t the port of entry into Islam.
In summary, Quran and sacraments are similar in that they both contain the divine presence, transform individuals and societies, and give new meaning to lives. Qur’an and sacraments are both signs of the sacred and they both have remembrance or memorial at their core.
I hope that you will be encouraged by this paper to engage in interfaith dialogue because I agree with Daniel Madigan of Georgetown University who says, “…one of the great values of our encounter with the other is to discover our particular identity.”3 To me this means that dialogues with “the other” will clarify and strengthen my own faith.
Author: Joyce Slaughter
Bernard Cooke attributes the transformation of humans, individually and communally to sacraments. Cooke explains that “God, dwelling with us, brings forth depths of personal growth that would not otherwise be possible… The reality of this relationship, as we increasingly accept it, provides a wisdom to guide us in the important decisions that shape our personhood and destiny… it leads to increasing personal relatedness to God and increasing personal transformation.” 1 It is logical to assume that as individuals are transformed their societies will be transformed as well.
Shah-Kazemi in writing of the sacred presence in the Qur’an says, “It is this element of presence which bestows upon all the other informative aspects of the text a dimension of transformative power. “ 2 Shaikh Muslim Bhanji in his book Towards a Better Understanding of the Qur’an, says the central theme of the Qur’an is the “training of the human being as a being conscious of his duties.”3… his duties towards Allah, his family, and society as a whole. The Qur’an in other words transforms the believer. Imam Ali ibn Abu Talib prays ““O Allah! Expand my breast with Qur’an, actuate my body with Qur’an, enlighten my sight with Qur’an, liberate my tongue by Qur’an, and help me to mould my life according to Qur’an, so long as You make me live”.4 The Imam prays that his whole being will be transformed by or even subsumed by the Qur’an. Al-Ghazali quotes Ali ibn Abi Talib on the importance of understanding and meditating on the Quran: “There is no good in a devotional act that is not understood, nor in Qur’an reading that is not pondered over.”5 While reciting the Qur’an will precipitate the descent of Allah upon the believers, understanding and pondering over it will help guide and transform their lives.
Bernard Cooke also discusses sacrament as a vehicle that delivers new meaning to life. He says our lives are interpreted through our experiences. Our key experiences, such as the death of a loved one, surviving a life threatening illness, or falling truly in love, are life-changing experiences. Cooke says “Sacrament is that which effects something by its significance. Sacrament, in other words, it that which gives a new meaning to things.” 6 Jesus’ life gave new meaning to Christians. He instituted the sacraments in part to allow them to experience this new life while living on earth.
Qur’an operated similarly in the life of the Prophet Mohammed. Ira Lepedius, Professor Emeritus of History at Berkley states in his book A History of Islamic Societies, “We see the Prophet as a man to whom the revelation has given a new direction in life. “ 7 The Qur’an changed a successful businessman, a trader in spices and other goods, into the dynamic leader of the new religion revealed by Allah. It led the Prophet to preach against the Quraysh, the tribe who controlled Mecca, the economic capital of Arabia. Their quest for wealth led them to neglect the tribal ethic of pre Islamic Arabia: care for the widows, orphans, and the poor. The Qur’an’s emphasis on the goodness and mercy of Allah lead the Prophet to challenge the Quraysh power structure.
The Qur’an not only gave new meaning to the life of the Prophet but to his followers as well. The Qur’an told believers to abandon the barbarous practices that had become endemic in their society and return to practicing justice towards all members of their society.
Let’s turn now to some of the other ways sacrament and Quran are similar: Qur’an and sacrament as sacred signs and as remembrance. We will then examine several significant ways in which they differ.
Sacraments are often defined as outward signs of an inward grace. In the 1950’s the Catholic catechism defined sacraments as “visible signs …(that) produce and increase grace in our souls.” 8 The Council of Trent defined a sacrament as a “symbol of something sacred, a visible form of invisible grace, having the power of sanctifying “ 9 Chauvet tells us that “the first characteristic of a sacrament is to be a ‘sacred sign’ or as Augustine said, ‘a sign of sacred reality.’ “ 10
You will recall that pondering over Chauvet’s definition of sacrament as a sacred sign opened up to me the possibility of comparing the Qur’an and sacraments. The “verses” in the Qur’an are called ayat or signs. One of the names by which the Qur’an is known is Al-Huda or The Guidance. Just as road signs guide us to our destination, Al-Huda guides the Muslim to her ultimate destination, heaven. Sign and signs are mentioned 135 times in the Qur’an. These signs can range from the punishment of an act of wickedness being a warning for believers 11 to the efficacy of honey produced by bees.12 Signs offer proofs of the Qur’an’s authenticity 13 and the power of Allah to save those who obey him. 14 The verses of the Qur’an contain the “signs of sacred reality”. It tells of the past history of Allah’s working in the lives of previous prophets such as Abraham, Noah, Joseph, and Jesus. It tells them how they are to worship Allah and that Allah is the only sacred reality in their lives.
In his Book From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist, Edward Foley enumerates some key concepts to aid us in understanding the beginnings of Eucharistic theology emerging in the New Testament and how these concepts continue to inform Roman Catholic sacramental theology even today. One of these concepts is that of Covenant Memorial. The writers of the Hebrew Testament frequently reminded their readers of the special covenant God had made with the Israelites. They are enjoined to remember how He saved them from slavery in Egypt by celebrating a memorial meal during Passover. The actions of Jesus during this same Passover meal are considered to be His institution of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. Foley says, “the followers of Jesus entered a ritual meal that invited them to collectively shape a living memory… (a) dynamic remembrance so that the new covenant would be proclaimed in their lives.”15
The Roman Catholic scholar, Alfons Teipen, tells us “ The Qur’an is not the dead text of dusty books…but rather a living memory.”16 The Qur’an itself tells Muslims to “remember” forty-two times. They are to remember their past when Allah helped them. Allah tells the Muslims “Remember the day when you were few and He increased your numbers.”17 Allah includes both men and women in His rewards for remembering him. He says “…those men and women who remember God a great deal, for them God has forgiveness and a great reward.” 18 Allah tells the Muslims they should “hasten to remember God, putting aside your business.“19 As Jesus instituted the Eucharist for the remembrance of him, Allah tells Muslims “I am God, and there is no god but I, so serve Me, and observe acts of prayer to remember me.”20
If there is any doubt that “memory” is important in the Qur’an we need only take note that its derivative words such as “remind” and “remembrance” appear 156 times. Compare this to the 130 times “prayer” and its derivative words appear. Salat (ritual prayer) of course, is a wajib or required act of all Muslims. This is by no means saying that the “remembrance” of Allah is separate from or superior to salat, but as the Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life21 the remembrance of God is the summit of prayer.” 22 The Qur’an even calls itself “dhikru ‘Llah” which means the “remembrance of God”. 23 Ali ibn Abi Talib, tells us why this remembrance is so important: “Truly God has made the remembrance (al-dhikr) a polish for the hearts, by which they hear after being deaf, and see after being blind, and yield after being resistant.”24 What Muslims hear, see, and yield to is their own primordial nature, their fitra, which is fashioned after God’s own divine nature.
Author: Joyce Slaughter
In writing the historic Vatican II document, Nostra Aetate, the Roman Catholic Church acknowledged that truth exists in other faith traditions and began to encourage interfaith dialogue. In their search for dialogue points, Christian and Muslim theologians have often compared the Qur’an, the actual words of Allah (God), to Jesus, the Word of God. This comparison is certainly helpful to the theological understanding of these two concepts. However, to the everyday Muslim associating Qur’an with Jesus presents a problem. Jesus, for Christians, is the divine Son of God, a co-equal as the second person of the Trinity. Some Muslims who see the Trinity as shirk, or polytheism, might hesitate to compare Jesus to Qur’an.
In his book, The Sacraments: the Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, Roman Catholic theologian, Louis-Marie Chauvet argues that sacraments are “first of all sacred signs. “ My first thought on reading this statement was that the verses of the Qur’an are called ayat, which means signs. Since Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of Allah, I concluded that the Qur’an might also be thought of as “sacred sign” and so could possibly be considered as sacrament especially from a Roman Catholic perspective. In this paper, therefore, I propose to focus on Qur’an as sacrament in light of the work of several Christian sacramental theologians, some of which are involved in interfaith dialogue. I will highlight both similarities as well as differences between Qur’an and sacraments. It is my hope that this comparison might facilitate a better understanding of Qur’an among Christians and sacrament among Muslims, thus smoothing the path for the type of interfaith dialogue that occurs among neighbors, colleagues, and grass roots interfaith groups.
In proposing that Qur’an be understood as a sacrament, the first question that comes to mind is “Is it even possible to compare the two?” Michael Kirwan, a Jesuit priest teaching at Heythrop College at the University of London, reminds us “sacramentality is not a monopoly of Christianity, but rather is basic to all human experience.”1 Leonardo Boff, the Brazilian theologian, says “Every religion, be it Christian or pagan, has a sacramental structure.” and that “all things, not just some things, can be transformed into sacraments.”2 Daniel Madigan, an Australian Jesuit teaching at Georgetown University, states “the place of (Qur’anic) scriptural recitation in the Muslim tradition could be considered analogous to the role of the Eucharist in the Christian tradition.”3 Reza Shah-Kazemi, of the Institute of Ismaili Studies, says the Names of Allah, which are found in the Qur’an, are sacramental prolongations of the Named, charged with divine presence.4 Clearly, the groundwork of comparing Quran to sacrament has been laid.
Now that we have seen the it is possible to compare Qur’an and sacraments, I propose that the following concepts apply to both of them.
• They both contain the divine presence.
• They both transform humans individually and communally.
• They both give new meaning to life.
• They are both signs of the sacred.
• They are both emphasize remembrance.
Our first point of similarity is that both the sacraments and the Qur’an are special articulations of the Divine Presence. Jesus Christ, the divine second person of the Christian Trinity both instituted and is present in the sacraments. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P., the theologian who served the Dutch Bishops at the Second Vatican Council, says, “The Eucharist is the focal point of Christ’s real presence among us.” The catechism of the Catholic Church says that “the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained” in the Eucharist. Roman Catholic Christianity undoubtedly believes in the divine presence in the sacraments.
Muslims believe the Qur’an contains Allah’s divine presence as well. William A. Graham, of Harvard University, says that through recitation, memorization, and reverent study of the Qur’an Muslims experience the Divine.5 Shah-Kazemi explains that the Qur’an “is deemed to be both revealed truth, explicitly articulated through words, and sacred presence, mysteriously conveyed by the divine Word. Bukhari, a compiler of Prophetic Hadiths, or sayings, relates the story of one of the Companions who was reciting the Qur’an. When one of his animals tried to run away he was puzzled and asked the Prophet who told him “that was the power of the Divine Presence that descended with the reciting” that startled the animal. Even animals were aware that something was different. This Divine Presence is called “al-Sakina” and is said to descend when a believer recites Qur’an.
1 Catholic and Shia in Dialogue pg 176.
2 Boff, Leonardo. Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments
3 Liturgy in a Postmodern World pg 170
4 Shah-Kazemi . pg 132
5 Graham, Islamic and Comparative Religious Studies 182
We have published a video of our last event on YouTube.
Islam in America Part1
Islam in America Part 2