Does the Qur’an have an Overriding Principle?


After hearing so much horrific news about happenings in the Muslim world, particularly the oppressive actions of dictators who torture Innocent citizens— men, women, and children — and prevent Muslims from worshipping in mosques, as well as the slaughter of innocent civilians and destruction of their homes and lives by armies, police, and whole governments, I paced for hours in a state of unbearable rage, until the time came for salat al-asr (afternoon worship).

During that salat, a feeling overwhelmed me, during which a realization came to me as to the overriding principle of the whole Qur’an. It may seem obvious to some, but after many years even the concept of an overriding principle never occurred to me. I think of an “overriding” principle not as cancellation of other principles, which is not exactly what I mean, but rather a principle so central to the message of the Qur’an that one should filter one’s interpretations through it, asking, are these or those ideas/interpretations consistent with this principle?

Disputes over various points and issues in Islam seem to have proliferated these days, sharply dividing Muslims where the Qur’an should have provided some basic unifying principles and articles of faith. And of course, most Muslims agree that Allah is one, that Mohammad is His prophet and messenger, and agree about the importance of salat, of zakat (charity), of fasting, and the Hajj pilgrimage. But disagreements about all sorts of other things, such as the way to determine when the lunar month begins and ends (especially for occasions like Ramadan), or the way to dress, eat, treat women, or treat each other, or one’s opinion in 2014 about disputes that occurred in the year 6 CE — these have become overriding considerations!

Overriding to the point where it seems possible to use the Qur’an (or other religious writings alleged to be “inspired” from Allah) to justify almost anything: the killing of children and innocents, the killing of other Muslims which is strongly prohibited in the Qur’an (!), the disfigurement (in revenge) of women including mothers, the prohibition of education for women, the mindless obeisance to autocratic rulers, the taking of children as wives, the forcible marriage of women to unsuitable men, and so much more — all of the above being clearly prohibited in the Qur’an! Were these “interpretations” subject to a guiding principle (and they are!), it would expose these practices as obvious violations. For they are all lacking in one major quality, which is compassion.

And compassion is what came to mind in salat as the overarching principle of the Qur’an. After all, this is a message to all humankind, to us. A message informing us about Allah and our relationship to him, and what our purpose is in living, and what He wants from us. And worship of Allah, if it is in fact true “surrender” of the self and faith in the uniquely total goodness of Allah, means always, in the Qur’an, making room in one’s life and heart for compassion.

The payment of zakat, mandatory “tax” to be exclusively used to help the poor and those in need, is always required for “purification.” Which is the meaning of the word zakat. Salat, the required daily worship often referred to as “prayer” (but much more than that), is usually mentioned in the Qur’an with zakat or another expression meaning charity.

Surat Fatir 35:29

Surely, those who recite the Book of Allah, and establish regular salat, and spend secretly and openly from what We have provided them, they are seeking a trade that can never lose.

سُوۡرَةُ فَاطِر
إِنَّ ٱلَّذِينَ يَتۡلُونَ كِتَـٰبَ ٱللَّهِ وَأَقَامُواْ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَأَنفَقُواْ مِمَّا رَزَقۡنَـٰهُمۡ سِرًّ۬ا وَعَلَانِيَةً۬ يَرۡجُونَ تِجَـٰرَةً۬ لَّن تَبُورَ (٢٩)

And here the “successful ones” who exemplify what is good simply do the following:

Surat Luqman 31:4

Those who establish regular Prayer, and give regular Charity, and have (in their hearts) the assurance of the Hereafter. (4)

سُوۡرَةُ لقمَان
ٱلَّذِينَ يُقِيمُونَ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَيُؤۡتُونَ ٱلزَّكَوٰةَ وَهُم بِٱلۡأَخِرَةِ هُمۡ يُوقِنُونَ (٤)

Surat Al-Bayyina 98:5

And they were not commanded except to serve Allah in true devotion, loyal to His religion (way of life), monotheists; to establish salat and to give the zakat; and that is the worthwhile religion. (5)

سُوۡرَةُ البَیّنَة
وَمَآ أُمِرُوٓاْ إِلَّا لِيَعۡبُدُواْ ٱللَّهَ مُخۡلِصِينَ لَهُ ٱلدِّينَ حُنَفَآءَ وَيُقِيمُواْ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَيُؤۡتُواْ ٱلزَّكَوٰةَ‌ۚ وَذَٲلِكَ دِينُ ٱلۡقَيِّمَةِ (٥)

These are only three out of many ayat that consistently link salat with zakat or general charity. Why? It should be obvious that to come to worship Allah, one must first purify oneself by giving to the poor, by doing an act of charity, an act based on compassion.

Note also in the aya above (98:5), religion is quite simply defined. The “deen alqayyima” which could be also described as “the upright religion,” then, means, in essence, to be monotheist — worship Allah (God) alone — and to worship/serve Him from one’s heart, with devotion, not just to go through rituals and make verbal statements or recitations. Further, it requires the act of salat as worship, which includes reciting Qur’an and body language of surrender, bowing and prostrating in a physically (astronomically and trigonometrically) proscribed place, direction, and time. And it requires regularly giving from one’s income to the poor. The required fasting for one month is supposed to give even the rich the sensation and pain of hunger, so they can have room for compassion.

These acts are relatively simple and few, in contrast to what has become, in some Muslim quarters, a seemingly endless tally of prohibitions and requirements, from dress codes to what one can and cannot listen to in one’s spare time. With a very basic and approachable religion, universally understood, one can better focus on creating a space for Allah’s light to enter and compassion to become one’s guiding principle.

سُوۡرَةُ البَیّنَة
وَمَآ أُمِرُوٓاْ إِلَّا لِيَعۡبُدُواْ ٱللَّهَ مُخۡلِصِينَ لَهُ ٱلدِّينَ حُنَفَآءَ وَيُقِيمُواْ ٱلصَّلَوٰةَ وَيُؤۡتُواْ ٱلزَّكَوٰةَ‌ۚ وَذَٲلِكَ دِينُ ٱلۡقَيِّمَةِ (٥)

Surat Al-Anaam 6:12

Say: To whom is all that is in the heavens and the earth? Say: To Allah. He has ordained (literally “written,” implies a binding rule or decree) mercy/compassion on Himself; most certainly He will gather you to the Day of Resurrection — there is no doubt about it. Those who have lost their souls, they do not believe.

قُل لِّمَن مَّا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ قُل لِّلَّهِ كَتَبَ عَلَىٰ نَفْسِهِ الرَّحْمَةَ لَيَجْمَعَنَّكُمْ إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ لَا رَيْبَ فِيهِ الَّذِينَ خَسِرُوا أَنفُسَهُمْ فَهُمْ لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ

Note also that Islam, as defined by the Qur’an, is not a membership club or interest group, not a social club or ethnic activities league, not certainly a religion that promotes denigrating others over trivial differences, or claiming this or that Muslim is a Kafir or disbeliever because of certain protocols that were missed or others that were enforced. It is not where people can fight over who is more faithful or who belongs and who doesn’t, because we are supposed to be guided by the overriding principle of compassion. We should blame ourselves first, then correct what we believe is wrong with patience and kindness not belligerence. This is the “good manners,” the compassionate attitude of Islam we should seek. If you seek it in others and not yourself, you will never find it!

Finally, if Allah ordained compassion for Himself, why are there so many wars, so much oppression, so much senseless killing and torture of innocents, so much destruction of civil and peaceable homes with children, bombing of hospitals, imprisonment for years of people who did nothing wrong, while the worst torturers and murderers are set free to wreak misery and havoc in the innocent?? So much of this is typical of the Muslim world and the Middle East.

Allah does not micromanage our lives, but gave free will to humans along with the freedom to exercise that free will. Only human oppressors curtail these inalienable rights for their own evil gains, such as wealth and power. It is up to us to struggle against oppression, even to give our lives in that struggle. Compassion would be the guiding principle in knowing who the oppressors and victims are. Not all people in power are necessarily oppressors, but it is far easier to oppress when one has power and wealth.

And if the victims fight back, that is their right; in fact, in Islam, it is their duty. But one should have a good look at oneself before claiming victimhood. After all, many of the worst oppressors claimed they did all this because of the oppression their victims inflicted on them. Truth, and standing firm against oppression, are essential components of compassion. Otherwise, we have the best people “lacking all conviction, and the worst full of passionate intensity.” In Islam, the latter should not be possible!

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