Doing Good Deeds
by Oliver Ruebenacker
"Those who believe, and those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians and the Zoroastrians - whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good deeds - their Lord will reward them and there shall be no fear for them nor shall they grieve." - Qur'an, 2:62
"Jesus said unto him, You shall love the Lord Your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor like yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." - Bible, Matthew 22:37-40
"You will not achieve piety unless you give from what you love. Indeed, God knows it well." - Qur'an, 3:92
"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law." - Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals
"Those who have homes and believe love those who seek refuge with them, and they have no envy in their hearts for whatever others have been given, but prefer them over themselves, even if they become poor. And those who have overcome their own greed in this way shall be successful."- Qur'an, 59:9
A while ago, I posted a question to a few forums: What are the most pressing problems of the Muslim community? What are the primary causes? What are the most promising solutions? I was quite disappointed about how few replies I got. I had expected more than ten or twenty times as many. In any case, I am very grateful to the few who replied.
Now it is my turn to try to answer.
Some pointed out that the Muslim community is a diverse construct of different subcommunities and individuals, while others pointed out that the primary concern of a Muslim was their personal relationship to God. I fully agree with these assertions. However, I do not believe in the conclusions that these brothers and sisters drew, which was that asking about problems, causes and solutions of the Muslim community was not very relevant.
I think no one can deny the following observation: Muslims were vastly better off than their Western contemporaries before the nineteenth century. After the nineteenth century, the people in the West were vastly better off. The comparison is valid based on any of the following indicators: Living standard, education, wealth, science, economy, military and political power. There may be exceptions, but it is clear as day that something is happening to the Muslim community is a whole.
One may argue which of the above indicators is the most important, and which causes which, but this is just asking, whether the chicken or the egg came first. You will not be able to pinpoint the cause for decline of the entire Muslim world on a single of the above indicators.
One may blame it on colonialism and neo-colonialism, but that does not explain how the West obtained the power to colonize the Muslim world in the first place. Whatever the influence of the West was, it could only affect the Muslim world after it became weak, so the Western influence is more a consequence than an original cause for decline.
In fact, if you ask what can bring down the entire Muslim world, you have to ask what is the one thing that the entire Muslim world has in common, and it becomes clear, that whatever has caused our decline must have something to do with our religion. Obviously, we believe that our religion is the best thing we have. Even if we were not believers, we would have to acknowledge that our religion is the one thing which has produced our proud civilizations in the first place and has set us ahead of the West for more than a thousand years - an unprecedented accomplishment.
The problem must therefore be not our religion, but what we make out of it today.
If we are believers, then we believe that the cause of our misery is that God the Praised and Most High is not pleased with us. Our Lord has told us in the Qur'an, that if He should not be pleased with a people, He will bring forth another people to replace them. In particularly disappointing cases, which are documented in the Qur'an, He might even decide to wipe out a whole community. God the Praised and Most High told us that He will not change the state of a people until they change their hearts.
Now I am sure you have heard this many times before. However, I will now tell you now something which might be new to you. What you may have heard before, countless times, is this: We are miserable, because we have not held onto our religion. To fix this, we should put more effort into our rituals, such as praying, fasting, purifying our hearts and so on.
Now this suggestion sounds awfully convincing, because many people really do believe consciously or unconsciously that the more effort one puts into rituals, the better a believer one is and the more God is pleased. It is easy to conclude, then, that God the Praised and Most High is not pleased with us, because we did not our rituals well enough. But there is something wrong with this theory if you really think about it.
First of all, there is no good explanation why believers in more recent history would be worse ritual performers than their past predecessors. Are we declining on our rituals because of something that is in our control or not? If not, then why would God be displeased with us? If it is in our control, then what is it?
But there is an even bigger problem: If God the Praised and Most High has turned us into underdogs because we were so bad in performing our rituals, then why did He turn the West into the dominant force? Are the people of the West better in performing ritual worship than us? I mean, look at us how much effort we spend in perfecting our rituals - how does the West compare to that?
The only explanation that makes sense is that while we might be world champions in performing rituals, we are a complete failure at something else, something that is so basic and so important that God the Praised and Most High is very displeased with us.
What is that? Open the Qur'an and it is there, in many different places: doing good deeds.
Are we not good in doing good deeds?
Let us first have a look at the theory: Look how much thought Muslims today spend on rituals and compare this with how much we think about doing good deeds. How many classes have been taught, speeches have been given and books have been written about the topic of rituals? And how many classes, speeches and books are there on the topic of doing good deeds? How many scholars became famous for writing about rituals, and how many became famous for writing about good deeds? How much time do Muslims spend on learning how to perfect their rituals, and how much time do they spend on learning how to do good deeds?
Muslims do a lot of good deeds, no doubt. Some donate money to homeless shelters, or sponsor a child in Africa, or help out in a soup kitchen. These are all good deeds. Does that not look pretty good?
Think about rituals. Muslims are fully aware that in order to do the rituals right, it is not enough to perform them sporadically when the mood strikes. To do them right, rather, requires a constant effort: You need to learn how to do them in order to have the maximum effect and most importantly you have to commit to doing them regularly.
The same is true with good deeds: To be an efficient doer of good deeds, it is necessary that one learns how to do good deeds so that they have the maximum effect. It is necessary to acquire a lot of knowledge and to commit to a constant effort.
Some help here and there for the homeless, the poor, the hungry, are all good deeds. These people may even depend on a lot of little good deeds to survive day by day. But all these little good deeds are nothing compared to a real solution, a solution by which they would not any more be homeless or poor or hungry. How much more worth is a a good deed that helps a person for the whole life compared to a good deed that only helps for one day? This is where the real good deeds are: Working to make a better society by working on permanent solutions - solutions that help people not only to survive the day but to transform their lives.
This is, of course, where it gets political. Many Muslims do not like to get political. And there often is some sort of silent arrangement between the Muslim citizen who does not want to be political and the autocratic Muslim ruler who likes his citizens to be busy with anything but politics. Oppressive rulers love people who are very busy with rituals, because if they are sufficiently occupied with rituals, they have no time left to think too much about the injustice or oppression happening in the world.
If we want to understand why back then, in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the West overtook the Muslim world, all we need to do is compare the good deeds by the effect they had on the recipients.
The beggar on the street will be grateful for every little coin he gets. But he will be even more grateful if he knows he is entitled to picking up a sum of money every month that will keep him alive. A woman will be grateful if her family is nice and lets her leave the house when she likes. But she will be even more grateful if the law of the land grants her that right. A wife will be grateful if she has a nice husband who does not beat her, does not take a second wife and does not buy a sex slave, but she will be even more grateful when the law does not permit him to do any of these things. A slave will be grateful if his master treats him nicely, but he will even be more grateful if he is not a slave at all. A citizen will be grateful for every good act of the ruler, but he or she will be even more grateful if at least some basic level of performance of the ruler is not up to the ruler's mood but ensured by laws and elections.
One can easily see that deeds that change the society are more important than any other deeds.
At this point, most Muslims will object and say: Maybe change is good, but who are you to tell us in which direction the change should go? True, five hundred years ago, we had discrimination against women and non-Muslims, enslavement, rape of slaves, wife-beating, barbaric punishments, lack of freedom of religion or opinion and dynasties of dictators (Of course, some would use nicer words to refer to those things). But who are you to tell us that these things were really so bad that changing them can be as important as our rituals? If this is so, then how come that some extremely smart, knowledgeable, pious and compassionate Muslims who lived five hundred years ago did not object to these things? And how come we find the Qur'an supporting their views?
To answer these questions, let us think, how the world will be like in the future, say, five hundred years from now. Since the world has changed drastically during the last five hundred years, it is a reasonable guess, that there will be another set of drastic changes during the next five hundred years. Most likely, the social, political and economical structures five hundred years from now will be so different from what we have today, that it would be quite difficult for us to describe them, even if we could see them with our own eyes. There is no way we can guess and imagine, how life will be like in five hundred years.
However, if we think about the past, five hundred years ago, and we think about the problems people were suffering from back then, some of which play only a minor role today, it makes sense to assume that in the future, five hundred years from now, some of today's worst causes of suffering might be defeated as well. What if in five hundred years, all people have access to clean water and healthy food, a comfortable home, a rewarding job, comprehensive medical care and peace and security? Would that not be paradise on Earth? Would we not all want to live in such a world? Would it not be the will of God the Praised and Most High, that such a world will be established?
Now imagine, the people in this paradise of the future look back at us. What would they think about us? What would they think about the fact that today people are hungry, thirsty, poor, homeless, sick and victims of war and other crimes? Would they not consider us uncivilized barbarians? Would they not wonder how we could allow this amount of human suffering without doing more against it than we are actually doing? Would they not be surprised how we can lead such a comfortable life and enjoy our privileges without struggling harder to help our fellow human beings in need? How could they have any respect left for us?
Now imagine this: What if some of the future people sympathize with us and defend us as follows: They would say, that we are really good people, because our world was not as bad as it seemed. They would argue, that those who are today hungry, thirsty, sick, homeless, oppressed and injured really did not suffer that much. There was no pressing need to really change anything, because life on the whole was quite fine. Certainly, life without poverty, hunger, homelessness, sickness, oppression and injuries is better, but it is really acceptable either way. We did a great job.
Would we not agree that such people who defend us in this way are out of their minds? You have not heard yet the worst part of it.
Imagine, our defender in the future even refer to the Qur'an. They argue, that God talks about hungry, poor and sick people in the Qur'an, and thereby approves that these people are hungry or poor or sick. They will argue, that the whole system that ensures food, water, health care, safety, homes and jobs to all people should be torn down, because it is incompatible with this and that verse in the Qur'an. They will use arguments such as: Poverty is fine, because people will give charity. Hunger is fine, because we feed the hungry, and we even make hunger a ritual when we fast.
And of course they from the future will say: Those who live in todays world (they mean us), were so pious and knowledgeable and smart, they (we) would have done anything it takes to eradicate hunger and poverty and diseases and war and crime, if only those things were worth fighting against. Since they (we) did not, the explanation can only be that it was not worth fighting for.
I hope, everybody would cringe over this kind of logic. But are not some of us applying exactly this kind of logic to our past?
If we want to learn from the past, this can not be done by leaving problems unsolved just because they were unsolved in the past. Rather, each generation and each community has to face its own challenges, and sometimes a problem that is too difficult to solve for others can be solved by us, and then there is no excuse for us to fail. There is a lot to learn from the past, but this is not achieved by trying to copy their social, economical and political structures. Rather, we have to realize that there is progress towards the better, and our job is to further advance that progress.
A key issue is, of course, how to live according to the Qur'an. A favorite argument of those who want to copy the past is that the past was more according to the Qur'an than the present. But was it really?
The crucial point is who has the authority to interpret the Qur'an, and for whom. For many, the question is, should we accept the interpretation of those who lived centuries before us, or try to develop our own? And why would we differ? God the Praised and Most High says:
"Those people have passed away; they shall be held accountable for what they earned and you shall be held accountable for what you earned, and you will not be asked about what they did." - Qur'an 2:134
The challenge of interpreting the Qur'an arises from the natural ambiguity of language. In any language, phrases tend to have many meanings. Sometimes, the meanings are entirely different, such as when the English word "bill" can mean a piece of money, or a piece of legislation, or a request to pay. Sometimes, the meaning is similar, but differs in subtle ways, for example when the word "house" can refer to a tiny shack or to a mighty mansion. And even if the meaning of a phrase is clear, the emphasis can be on different aspects of it, for example, if we hear the word "spouse", it makes a difference whether we are thinking of emotional, social or legal issues.
If a verse of the Qur'an has many meanings, how do we pick the right one? The most crucial question one has to answer first, is what is the context of the Qur'an, because the meaning of language is determined by a combination of its words and its context.
What is the context of the Qur'an is in fact something on which Muslims greatly differ. One strand are the traditionalists, who believe the Qur'an must be seen in the context of its original recipients, the Muslims who witnessed the arrival of its revelation. The traditionalist primarily asks: Under what circumstances was a verse revealed? How was it understood by the Prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions?
The problem with the traditionalist view is that one needs history to understand the Qur'an, but Muslims do not agree on history. It would seem, the authenticity of the Qur'an looses much of its value when one needs other sources which are much less authentic. But there is a logical problem, too: The meaning of some verses was not known to the early Muslims - some of these are scientific issues, which are known now, others are verses where we still do not know what they mean. How can we ask what a verse meant to them when in fact it meant nothing to them at all?
Then there are the literalists, who argue one should take what they call the literal meaning, which is a meaning that does not depend on any context. Literalists have appeared throughout Muslim history, because they often come up with some fascinating results, but they have never been able to establish themselves, because not even the literalists agree with each other, what the literal meaning of the Qur'an is. Many literalists restrict their approach by applying it to some parts of the Qur'an and not other parts, but even that leaves some major disagreements and creates new ones over the questions, what parts exactly are those to which a literal interpretation applies.
A newer approach, which established itself around the time when the West became dominant, is the liberal or secular approach, according to which the Qur'an is somehow reduced in its scope to general principles, at least for those who live today. Maybe the Qur'an was meant to be followed down to every detail in the past, so the liberalists argue, but today we only feel bound by the general principles and take liberty on the details. While this can sound somewhat appealing in theory and is quite popular with some, in practical terms it means little more than ignoring parts of the Qur'an at will.
If we want to live according to the Qur'an, the complete Qur'an, without going back to the past, without giving up the progress that has done so much benefit to people, what options are we left with? If the authenticity of the Qur'an, which God the Praised and Most High has guaranteed for us, has a value, then the message must be put into a context which we know is equally authentic. This can only be done by putting the Qur'an into the context of our own lives.
As Muhammad Abduh said, we must approach the Qur'an as if it had been revealed directly to us. In other words, as if Archangel Gabriel had given it to us personally today. Each believer has his or her own context and therefore is or her own meaning. Those different meanigns are, of course, closely related to each other, but they are not the same. The meaning of the Qur'an is also not a matter of choice, but a fact to be discovered.
Not everybody succeeds in finding the correct meaning, as God the Praised and Most High tells us in the Qur'an, some He guides by it and some He leads astray. Religion is only understandable to those who live it, and all others will be confused by it. And who will be the ones who will be guided? They will be the ones who do good deeds. This is where the circle closes. Only if you shape up on doing good deeds will you understand what the Qur'an tells you.
The believer does good deeds in the best way, and that means working for change, working to protect the rights of each and every human being. The best good deeds are working to grant permanent rights to the underprivileged.
And if you are truly willing to take the challenge and live this religion of doing good deeds, perhaps you will find that the Qur'an does not say what you and many others before you thought it says. Perhaps you will find that marrying a second wife is not an option for you. And perhaps you will find that it is not permitted to enslave or rape any person, and perhaps you will find all people are equal and that Muslims do not have any more rights than other people, and that women have the same rights as men. Try it!
Today, maybe the West is not the greatest doer of good deeds any more. Maybe they have become too greedy and too arrogant. Maybe God the Praised and Most High has already decided that the West will stop being the dominant force on the planet. Maybe the decline already begun.
This is our chance. Let us become the greatest doers of good deeds: Let us work for a better world. Let us work for the rights of the weak, the poor, the disadvantaged. We do not know the future, or who will be the dominant force. But if we are Muslims, we believe that God the Praised and Most High will favor those who make the world a better place to live in for all its citizens, those who are most willing to protect the rights of every person, those who work for love, truth and justice.
Those will be the ones who will understand what God the Praised and Most High is telling us.
Mr Oliver A Ruebenacker is a convert from Germany who lives with his wife in Cambridge, Massachuetts. Oliver has a PhD in Physics and works as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Biological Physics.