Jewish Journal

Religions Hold Mix of Justice and Mercy

by Reuven Firestone

Posted on Jan. 1, 2004 at 7:00 pm

Religion did not begin with compassion. The gods of the ancient Near East were not exactly epitomes of goodness.

In the flood story of the Gilgamesh Epic, the gods destroyed humanity not because they were reacting to unbridled violence and sin, as in the biblical (and quranic) versions, but because humans were making too much noise and disturbing them.

The ancient gods were worshipped but not out of love. They were worshipped out of fear.

In the old polytheistic systems of the ancient Near East, the gods fought each other and their competitors' human worshippers. People made offerings to the gods to placate their anger. They bribed them for their beneficence.

The gods acted out the birth, maturity, decay and death of nature in their own cycles of violence. Some exhibited the attribute of stern justice observed in the Bible, but one hardly observes compassion among the gods of old.

The idea of a compassionate God is an innovation of monotheism. Only when the one God of all life became manifest could humanity conceive of a divinity that combined both justice and mercy. The innovation was the compassion. But the old attribute of stern justice did not disappear.

That combination of justice and compassion (din and rachamim in Jewish religious parlance) offers a broad repertoire of divine responses to human behaviors. While we may resonate with the stories of compassion in the Bible, we must not ignore the cases in which God brings mass destruction upon Israelites and non-Israelites for the sins of the few. Not all the children killed in God's plagues, fires and wars were guilty.

Like the Bible, the Quran portrays God in terms of justice and mercy. God is al-Jabbar, "the powerful," sometimes even understood as "the oppressor," whom no one can resist, but God is al-Rachman as well, "the merciful." God is also al-Salam.

Islam displays the same broad spectrum between the poles of harsh justice and compassionate mercy that we observe in Judaism. All the options are available, and the huge compendium of religious literature in Islam attests to a long and venerable history of struggle (which is the meaning of jihad) with applying the Quran and its interpretations to the exigencies of real life.

Different methodologies are used to plumb the depths of the divine will. As a result, some schools of interpretation tend to be harsher, some more lenient on a variety of issues.

I know of no criteria by which one can accurately judge a religion as more just, loving, hateful or compassionate than others. Every one of these attributes is found abundantly in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Because the range is there, religious interpreters find themselves attracted to what resonates with their own human experience. There are cruel Muslims, to be sure. There are also cruel Christians, Hindus and, yes, cruel Jews.

Particularly since Sept. 11, we hear Muslim spokespersons stand up and claim that those who engage in certain behaviors or interpretations of the Quran are not really Muslims. According to this argument, cruel individuals who consider themselves Muslims are only cruel individuals. They cannot be Muslims, because Islam teaches reason and compassion.

Islam does indeed teach reason and compassion. But Islam can also express passionate anger and violent aggression. The claim that cruel Muslims are not Muslims is disingenuous and abdicates responsibility for the behavior of religious compatriots who are acting immorally against others.

There are indeed religious Muslims who engage in terrorism in the name of Islam. These are true Muslims.

They may practice expressions of Islam that are neither normative nor commendable, but "normative" and "commendable" are subjective terms. Terror in the name of religion fits historically within the broad range of options that must be considered authentic to Islam, and it must be acknowledged as such by Muslims.

It is certainly true that the current trend toward militant and violent radicalism carried out in the name of Islam is a hearkening back to pagan, pre-Islamic Arabian values. It is also true that these values were not successfully purged by the softening overlay of religion.

We observe the same tensions playing out in Christianity and Judaism, of course, but by our generation these religions seem to have been more successful than Islam in neutralizing the excesses of human nature. At the very least, it is much more difficult today for cruelty to be acted out through religious channels within the broadest parameters of Judaism and Christianity than Islam.

In the final analysis, neither pre-Islamic Arabian standards nor Islamic or other religious values create human cruelty. The inclination for cruelty comes from somewhere else in the complex tangle of what is the human psyche. Cruelty is not Islamic, Jewish or Christian.

On the other hand, in every case I know of human cruelty on a public and mass level, the perpetrators claim to find justification by association with some norm or value that is thought to provide legitimacy. Sometimes the false legitimacy is religious. But this is only an attempt at justification. Religion or culture is not a cause.

Then again, if pseudo-legitimacy for human cruelty can be hung easily on a great religious system like Islam, there is a problem. That problem can be fixed, but only when alternative channels for aggression and alternative means for resolving disputes are stressed within the system.

And that's where America comes into the picture. In the free, open and safe society that is America, I observe American Muslims engaging in a new jihad. This jihad is an open struggle to stress the Islamic values of reason, tolerance and nonviolent means of resolving disputes. I see this jihad being played out every day in the Muslim community of Los Angeles. There are other voices in the American Muslim community as well --  some that are quite problematic, in fact -- but this is the way it should be in an open society.

The struggle of the American Jewish community to integrate the best of Jewish values with the best of American values can be a model. Here in America, the voices of reason and compassion can prevail because Americans, whether Muslim or Christian or Jew, will not allow threats and intimidation to win the day.  

Reuven Firestone is professor of medieval Judaism and Islam and the director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion

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