Doctrines > Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue(2)   (1)

 

Humans in Dialogue on the Divine Message

The discussion in this part will be centered on different kinds of people who were the subject matter of many and varied instances where humans were involved in a dialogue of some sort or the other as is told by the Holy Quran. From these historical incidences there are good things to be followed or surpassed as well as bad examples to avoid.

The Holy Quran has portrayed many examples of both camps, i.e. of belief and unbelief. There were people who remained faithful to their ideological conviction, on the right path, while others went astray both in thought and practice. As for the good examples, the Quran has tried to make clear what has set them apart, some so much so that they transcend all barriers of time, place, and peoples to shine in our lives.

Here, we are attempting to study the Quranic stories of those people, be they good, so that we may follow their example, or bad, so that we may keep our distance from them.  

From the historical incidences of the Quran storytelling, there are good things to be followed or surpassed as well as bad examples to avoid.

Abel and Cain

One of the most striking techniques of dialogue of the Holy Quran has been the use of two contradictory characters, one worthy of emulating and the other unworthy of following. Over a particular incident the two people take diametrically opposed positions, where the vocal dialogue starts word for word and the silent one with action and counteraction. This paves the way for both parties to the dialogue to speak their minds. The verbal exchanges and trading of actions would then give man the whole picture in order to go about his life treading the right path.

An example of this type of dialogue is in the story of Abel and Cain, which the Quran has related in a terse manner, thus:

Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! They each presented a sacrifice (to God): It was accepted from one, but not from the other. Said the latter: “Be sure I will slay thee.” “Surely,” said the former, “God doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear God, the Cherisher of the Worlds. For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the companions of the fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong.” The (selfish) soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became (himself) one of the lost ones. (5: 27–28)

Comparing the two men

Assuming we are watching the events of this story unfold before our eyes, scene one of the play is enacted where the two sons of Adam are seen offering sacrifices to God, just to seek His pleasure or ask for a favor to be bestowed on them. The result was that He accepted the sacrificial offering of one of them and turned down the other. The beaten party did not concede defeat with obedience. On the contrary, he protested and rebelled, contemplating transgression.

Scene two takes us to the argument between the two brothers, where the loser started threatening the one with the firm religious faith whose offering God had accepted. He was seething with anger, animosity, and envy, so much so that he threatened his brother with death. There was no need for to issue death threats and retribution, as the threatened party had no hand in the result of the competition. It was all God’s making. Thus, He should have been the one who would have addressed any grievance. However, this had come about as a result of blind envy.

What was the reaction of the believer? All that one can learn of the position of the brother who had been threatened with death was indicative of the calmness and tranquility of belief and spiritual purity, which can be detected from the true feelings for the misguided brother. His words encapsulated such sincere feelings, especially in his response to his brother: “If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear God, the Cherisher of the Worlds” (5: 28).

It is the position of non-violence and a propensity for peacemaking. He raised himself above the threatening language used by his brother, as he did not subscribe to the attitude of homicide in a moment of fury or caprice. He believed in calm and reasoned argument, which is capable of ameliorating tense situations that have been precipitated by malaise. The wiser of the two brothers then ascribed his position of non-aggression to his belief in God, who wants man to live in peace in this world. Thus he was resigned to the fact that he feared God, the Lord of the Worlds, who is aware of all words and deeds and who would call him to book for what he had done.

Firm in the knowledge that as far as he was concerned, it was a matter of principle, the more sensible of them cautioned the other brother that he would be held responsible for the guilt of both the killer and the victim, should he decide to go ahead and kill him. He further warned him that his final abode would be hellfire, which is the punishment of transgressors. This initiative of reminding the would-be killer for an impending punishment has an echo in this tradition, “The killer would cause the cleansing of all sins of his victim” if the killing was unprovoked. This is intended to serve as a deterrent not to commit murder and a reminder of the consequences, if it is committed.

Some people may argue that the victim was not trying to defend himself, which was within his natural right. However, the issue is not as it has been perceived. It seems that the dialogue in progress was about the use of violence to combat disappointment and runaway feelings, since it was not justified in such a case. The Quranic verses do not go into detail about the incident. Did the victim capitulate to the killer? Or did he put up a struggle and try to defend himself? Or did the murder take place in no time like an assassination? The verse has chosen to ignore all those details, preferring to concentrate on the vibrancy of the topic of dialogue. It did not want to drift away from the main thrust of the debate, i.e. the nature of the incident, which represented the first evil deed on earth. On the other hand, it wanted to show us the naivety of the wicked criminal and his ignorance of how to conceal his crime or bury the victim, so much so that God sent a raven to show him how to bury his dead brother. This waiting time, after he committed the crime, gave him a breathing space to reflect upon what he had done, ending in his showing remorse.

Others may also argue about the comparison between the two positions of the antagonists, concluding that, in keeping quiet, the victim had given the initiative to his brother to kill him without mounting a serious attempt to defend himself. However, our reading of the verses leads us to conclude that the victim tried to argue with his brother by first rejecting the idea of his starting the aggression on the basis of the justifications given by the aggressor. Thus, he started with rejecting, for fear of God, the notion of being the party who would deal the first blow, which suggests that he was not in the position of self-defense that gives everyone in a similar situation the right to do so. Had he wanted the opposite, viz. showing weakness and capitulation, he would have trodden a different path.

 

Be it in peace or in war, people should feel as light as a feather before the Creator as they are mere morals.

Educational values

The moral of this short story/dialogue, which depicted two disparate characters, representing good and evil, is that we have to warm to the notion of good and give the idea of evil the cold shoulder. Weighing the two contradictory positions against one another should tell us which side we should be on, in that the crime was unprovoked; it was perpetrated due to a psychological complex brought about by envy. The victim did not do anything that could warrant the crime against him. The victim did not even try to make a show of his triumph over his brother, when God accepted his sacrificial offering, so that it could have been perceived as a sign of provocation. His moral fiber did not allow him to do that.

The ultimate lesson to be learned of this story is the abhorrence it engenders in the hearts and minds of people against crime and criminals. On the other side of the spectrum, it generates sympathy with the victim. This would leave an impact on human conduct in general of the deeds man may contemplate and the judgment he may wish to pass on the actions of others.

As for us, we may make use of the story in two areas:

1. In the educational field, the story may serve as a learning exercise/experience, especially when it is turned into a play. It may be desirable to make it into a religious educational story that could target children and youths, in a way that is appropriate to their mentality, be it in an aided storytelling style, video, or a theatrical performance.

2. Writing other stories using the same theme, with a view to addressing crime, in all its types, i.e. murder, stealing, adultery, transgressing against people, etc. This is because the Qur’anic way of education starts with the planning phase, using the examples provided either by mimicking them, using the general themes, or writing original stories. It is to be stressed, though, that the Qur’anic approach has never been intended to provide the texts simply to be memorized in a barren parrot-like manner, which is in no way capable of moving forward into providing variety.

In so doing, we can ensure that Islamic educational work lives the climate of the Holy Quran and draws on its ideology and methods of work.

Saul and Goliath

This is another of the prophets’ stories. It revolves around a prophet who was sent to the Israelites. Knowing the name of that prophet is not so important, as we have set out to concentrate on the subject of the dialogue that took place between him and the people he was sent to.

The story in a nutshell

The people approached their prophet to send them a king [commander] to fight in the cause of God, so that they could fight under his command, giving the impression that they were among God’s army and that they were looking for a competent commander.

The prophet was somewhat skeptical of the seriousness of their request. Thus he said to them that he was fearful that they might not respond to the call to arms, if God had made it incumbent on them to fight. In reply, they made it clear that they had resolved the matter and that they were all for waging war, not least because injustice was being done to them by being ousted from their kith and kin. This, they added, would make war a just one, i.e. in defense of their interests and for preserving their faith.

The Prophet appointed the commander, making it abundantly clear to them that the appointment was divinely sanctioned. However, they did not conceal their real feelings about the appointed commander, as, to their minds, he was not the right man for the job, not least for his weak financial position. That is, they considered sound economic muscle a prerequisite to command and rule. They further argued that some of them were more eligible than the appointee because they could fulfill that condition.

For his part, the Prophet took issue with them that wealth should not amount to much in the qualities of the commander because the nature of his job required the availability of a fighting force and the expertise to plan and mount attacks. He confirmed that both were present in the appointee, who had been endowed with outstanding physical strength and military know-how. And, in the final analysis, it was the divine will that had decreed his appointment.

The new commander set forth with his soldiers. Testing times between the commander and his soldiers started in earnest. He announced to them that God had decided to put them through their paces to see how obedient they were in carrying out the orders issued to them. The test was that, once they got to a river, they should not drink more than a handful of water each, irrespective of how thirsty they might have been. The majority failed the test and showed flagging morale. The true believers stood their ground and eventually won the battle.

This has been the story. What lessons should we derive from it?

Lessons for the activists

There are several points in this story/dialogue to be pondered:

1. The required level of preparedness

The workers in the way of God should be wary of many overzealous people who wave the slogans of jihad and yet, once a good and wise leadership becomes available, deep down they think or hope that such leadership would never emerge. We have to make use of the approach demonstrated in this story to deal with them, with a view to putting them to the test. In so doing, we should be able to find out whether they are serious. Thus, we should neutralize the deceitful elements among them, by making them face the music, if not in real situations, then at least by engaging them in dialogue that is capable of uncovering those aspects relating to the personal as well as the doctrinal.

2. Victory and defeat

The question of victory or defeat is not linked to large or small numbers of fighters. Rather, it is a matter of conviction, planning, organization, and armament. This is bound to make the organized forces of belief, although outnumbered, gain the ascendancy over the adversary, regardless of their numbers. This has been borne out by the fact of this sincere motto: “How oft, by God’s will, hath a small force vanquished a big one?” (2: 249). This is bound to make the activists grow in confidence, regardless of the power the adversaries might muster.

3. Living the experience

The significance of the dialogue in this story is that we have been able to go through the emotions of both the groups and the positions they moved to, be they those of the waverers or the truthful. This would have seldom come across, had the style of telling the story been that of reporting, i.e. not a dialogue one. The impact of the story is far greater when it is told in a dialogue style that we can easily identify with.

4. Counting on God’s support

Through thick and thin, the mujahideen among the believers should never forget that they are in need of God’s support and guidance. If it is a victory they are aspiring to or forbearance in adversity, they should always count on Him. They should never lose sight of the fact that He is the granter of victory. So, going through the sentiments that one is invincible should not lead to vanity and turning one’s back to God. By the same token, feelings of weakness should not lead to resignation before the Might of the Almighty. In the final analysis, be it in peace or in war, people should feel as light as a feather before the Creator as they are mere mortals.

This is the difference between the believers who feel in high feather, i.e. drawing on the strength of the Almighty, and that they shall overcome and the unbelievers who draw on earthly strength, which is waning. Thus, the latter give hostages to fortune.

After this resume, it is time to experience the story once more through this Quranic lively dialogue:

Hast thou not turned thy vision to the Chiefs of the Children of Israel after (the time of) Moses? They said to a prophet (That was) among them: “Appoint for us a King, that we May fight in the cause of God.” He said: “Is it not possible, if ye were commanded to fight, that that ye will not fight?” They said: “How could we refuse to fight in the cause of God, seeing that we were turned out of our homes and our families?” But when they were commanded to fight, they turned back, except a small band among them. But God has full knowledge of those who do wrong.

Their Prophet said to them: “God hath appointed Saul king over you.” They said: “How can he exercise authority over us when we are better fitted than he to exercise authority, and he is not even gifted, with wealth in abundance?” He said: “God hath Chosen him above you, and hath gifted him abundantly with knowledge and bodily prowess: God Grants His authority to whom He pleases. Allah is All-Embracing, and He knows all things.”

And (further) their Prophet said to them: “A Sign of his authority is that there shall come to you the Ark of the Covenant, with (an assurance) therein of security from your Lord, and the relics left by the family of Moses and the family of Aaron, carried by angels. In this is a Symbol for you if ye indeed have faith.” When Saul set forth with the armies, he said: “God will test you at the stream: if any drinks of its water, he goes not with my army: Only those who taste not of it go with me: A mere sip out of the hand is excused.” but they all drank of it, except a few.

When they crossed the river, he and the faithful ones with him, they said: “This day we cannot cope with Goliath and his forces.” But those who were convinced that they must meet God, said: “How oft, by God’s will, hath a small force vanquished a big one? God is with those who steadfastly persevere.” When they advanced to meet Goliath and his forces, they prayed: “Our Lord! Pour out constancy on us and make our steps firm: Help us against those that reject faith.” By God’s will they routed them; and David slew Goliath; and God gave him power and wisdom and taught him whatever (else) He willed. And did not God check one set of people by means of another, the earth would indeed be full of mischief: But God is full of bounty to all the Worlds. (2: 246–51)