Azher Quader M.D.

For those claiming any connection to religion, theology seems to play a critical role in directing their lives. It often dictates their understanding of piety and perhaps even the purpose of their lives. Not surprisingly therefore there is a lot of emphasis given to it in our religious discourses. Such issues and their nuances as prayer and fasting, hajj and zakat, marriage and divorce, rules of accumulating and distributing wealth, of interactions between men and women, in fact all that is part of our daily lives, fall under the expansive rubric of theology and is often the subject of intense debates within our spiritual circles.

Hence we may conclude that theology with its popular embrace of rituals and practices, provides an essential basis for a community’s popular identity. So whether we are talking about our own or any other community we all are identified by our theological particularities.

Ever since our arrival in America many of us have come face to face, some for the very first time, with members of different religious communities. America, in spite of being home to mostly Christians though, is still a country with significant religious diversity. The important right to freedom of religion enshrined in its constitution guarantees to each religious community the freedom to pursue its particular theological practices, so long as these do not conflict with the laws of the country. This permits for the appearance and existence of a rich multi religious society. This measure of religious pluralism as permitted and practiced in the country is obviously commendable. Perhaps equally significant is its alignment with the guidance in the Quran where it references it thus:

O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, allaware. Al Hujrat, 49:13

It is interesting to note that immediately following the mention of human beings made into nations and tribes, the one criterion for honor and nobility of a person, has been emphasized to be the righteousness that stems out of God-consciousness. By this one may deduce that nobility of personhood, a clear goal of all religions, is defined through God consciousness and not necessarily through our theological practices which at the most could give us communal identities to be recognized as such and not conflicted.

Asad provides this additional comment: “One could say then that theology provides the easily perceptible , the obvious and the apparent, the routine and the established activities by which a community is known. These activities are what give us a sense of belonging to a group, and in a more primitive sense, a tribe.”

Following 9/11, we embarked upon a fairly robust effort at interfaith relationship building, through dialogues and dinners, in hopes of telling our non Muslim neighbors that we were not the bad guys they were told to fear, nor so different from them as often described by some media sources.

Having participated in enough of these interfaith engagements over the years, it has become clear to us that what was being passed around as faith was in fact mostly theology and what were being explored, were generally our theological differences.

The Christians would claim to the divinity of Jesus and we would put forward our belief in his humanity, they would claim the path for salvation required his mediation and we would insist our journey to heaven or hell was powered their dietary laws and we would present our zabiha rules , they would state their permission for interest, we would describe our restriction for the same, they would explain their dependence on religious authority, we would provide evidence for our relative freedom from it, they would describe their rules of retaliation in issues of conflict and we would explain our rules of engagement when agreements were broken, and so the list went on.

Very rarely would we engage over such more basic and broader issues of faith as compassion (rahma) and justice (adl) and their effects on the daily conduct of our lives. Such essential components of faith as the unity of man, equality and the sanctity of life, that so strongly influence our views on race, gender and the culture of violence that surrounds us, were rarely discussed. Consequently neither our interfaith engagements nor our intra faith interactions appear to have borne real fruits. To be sure the opportunities were there to get together periodically for small table talk and the exchange of courtesies over sumptuous meals, yet the real bonding that could be made between our circle of faith and people of other faiths was perhaps never realized. Clearly it is our mind set, nurtured on theology, not on true commonalities in our concerns and challenges, that appears to limit our deeper and more spiritual engagements.

The obvious question to ask would be, why is this so? Could it be that the practice of theology is so integral to our personal and collective identities that in its pursuit we become less cognizant of the need to embrace the deeper values of righteous human existance? Support for the sake of distinction if we call these deeper values our faith as opposed to theology, could it be that the boundaries of theology and faith are so blurred in our popular religious culture, that one passes for the other without any distinction being drawn. For while theology requires performances that are mostly mechanical and arguably superficial, the demands of faith are anchored in deep seated convictions and painstaking actions not so easily seen or measured. Theology one may really say, provides permissions and prohibitions, however faith it is which provides vision, perspective and the real purpose behind the permissions and prohibitions.. Sadly without vision and perspective we get an ISIS not a caliphate of the pious.

The Quran reminds us of this distinction in many places where it repeatedly encourages us to pursue a life of faith (ad deen) in preference to one defined through rigid laws (shariah) which are only means to internalize Deen. It acknowledges the greater challenge we face in travelling the uphill path of faith but says without reservation that it is His preferred way.

“It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards the East and the West,
but righteous is the one who believes in Allah,
and the Last Day,
and the angels and the Book and the prophets,
and gives away wealth out of love for Him to the near of kin and the orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask and to set slaves free
and keeps up prayer and pays the poor-due;
and the performers of their promise when they make a promise,
and the patient in distress and affliction and in the time of conflict.
These are they who are truthful; and these are they who the true believers.”
Surah Baqara 2:177

Here faith is defined in terms of certain empowering beliefs which lead us to such powerful actions that garner compassion, sacrifice, charity, trust and integrity. The ability to keep our promises, to be patient in tribulations, to endure setbacks and hardships with dignity and grace, to speak truth to the face of power, to rally for justice, to feed the hungry to care for the sick, to protect the orphans, to defend the oppressed, these are the more important elements of faith that are the hallmarks of Muslim character and identity. Absent these, our religious lives are hollow and meaningless. In fact the lure of theological practices and discussions is so pervasive and attractive within our religious community that the call for building our lives in the traditions of true faith is almost ignored and lost in the shuffle. In his own inimical style Iqbal speaks about this loss where he declares:

گلا تو گہونٹ دیا اهل مدرسہ نے ترا
كہاں سے ادا لا ا ہ الا ل
The teachings of the madrassa’s has laid a strangle hold on your throat
Where now can come from you the liberating call of ‘there is no god but Allah’

And at another time he laments more strongly:
حقیقت خرافات میں كہو گئ
یہ امت روایات میں كہو گئ
The truth has been lost in absurdities,
This Ummah is lost in the pursuit of traditions

بجهی عشق كی آگ اندهیر ہے
مسلماں نہیں راكه كا ڈهیر ہے
Extinguished is the fire of love. There is just darkness!
The Muslim is reduced to a heap of ashes, nothing more

Our emphasis on rituals has so blinded us from recognizing and following those principles of faith which are so significant for building character and creating a culture of trust, that it is not surprising our words are no longer credible, our deeds no longer impressive.

We often wonder why our world is so full of conflict and unhappiness? Why there is so much strife and insecurity? Why such poverty, such misery? Why such violence and such chaos? Could it be that what we are pursuing is not the substantive, not the real, not the transformative. Through the imagery of videos and bill boards, have we reduced Islam from a way of life to a play of perceptions for the world to consume? Whatever happened to the silent power of personal engagements and individual examples that once worked miracles and brought millions into the fold?

Today after having lived for half a century in America as new immigrants, we have become the most hated of people and the most mistrusted as a group. We blame this as a normal right of passage in a country historically hostile to every generation of new immigrants. Sadly we are hated not because we are Arabs or Bosnians, not because we are Somalis or Iranians, not because we are Indians or Pakistanis, but because we are Muslims. It is the actions taken in the name of Islam that have alienated us. How far have we departed from our purpose? How lost are we in the wilderness?

Our journey back to faith clearly asks of us a lot more than prayer and fasting, zakath and hajj, zikr and hifz; it demands a commitment to values, developing those traits that are life changing in our personal lives and transformational in our collective struggles. Indeed this journey of faith begins, where the other journey of rites and rituals, ends. If our future is to be different our path cannot be what it has been in the past. If we are stubbornly insistent on a life of the routine, we cannot aspire for a destiny of glory. Let us boldly embark on that momentous journey where theology stops and faith begins.

Azher Quader, MD is a board certified urologist in private practice with offices in Chicago and Arlington Heights, Illinois. He is Executive Director of the Compassionate Care Network (CCN), which is a provider network of physicians, dentists and allied health care workers formed to provide affordable health care services for the uninsured in Chicago and suburbs. He is also President of Community Builders Council, a community advocacy group promoting the importance of faith, family, finance, education, civic engagement, health and culture in building vibrant communities. He is a recipient of several community service awards.