Author: Joyce Slaughter
V. Transformative Power of Qur’an and Sacraments
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.
VI. Qur’an and Sacraments: Vehicle of New Meaning.
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.
VII. Sacrament and Qur’an as Sacred Signs.
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.
VII. Sacrament and Quran as Remembrance
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.
1 Cooke 233
2 Shah-Kazemi pg 6
5 ibid 5
6 Cooke, Bernard pg57
7 Lepidus, Ira pg 19
8 Chauvet xiv
10 Chauvet xiv
15 Foley 32-33
16 Teipen 290
17 Qur’an 7:86
20 Qur’an 20:14
21 Catechism of Catholic Church sec 1324
22 Catholics and Shi’a in Dialogue 128
23 Qur’an 21:58
24 Catholics and Shi’a 131