Eid Mubarak! May there be justice and peace (in Assam as much as in Bangalore, in India as much as in Germany), a day full of celebration (among loved ones and among the wretched of the earth), and may God answer your prayers.

Which He sure will. Or won't He? This question figured prominently in a number of deeply engaging conversations I had during the last weeks, and was implicit in most others to the extent they concerned Ramazan. It came up in many different ways: how can I live a good life, and why don't I? How will God look upon me - now and on judgement day? And most frequently: will He answer my prayers? That I am confident that He will is a scandal for many of my Muslim friends. Often it seemd, in fact, as if our shared quest for solace leads straight into the key theological, ethical and spiritual difference between Islam and Christianity - which in turn prompted me to finally write this post (which had been lingering in my mind for quite a while anyway).

Let me clarify at the outset, however, that I do so from my own Christian standpoint without any missionary or self-righteous intentions - doing so is just plain inevitable, since the quest for solace - and the hope that God may answer our prayers - is necessarily an existential one. I am, however, not interested to start a petty sectarian turf war, and I am sure God is great enough to stand above narrowmindedness. (I am also sure that this is a very Islamic statement to make, by the way - as will become clear soon.) What I rather hope to accomplish today is to reflect upon some of my conversations and observations during Ramazan in Lucknow - by posing some hard and pressing questions.

These conversations and observations had to do with solace in multiple ways. One female friend, for instance, decided not to visit me anymore, for fear of sinning by sitting and chatting with an unrelated man. With the onset of Ramazan, the solace she earlier found in my Espresso machine began to seem shallow in light of her perceived moral obligations. Another friend, who earlier shared many of his dreams, but never religious ones, began to frequent a local mosque, hoping to recalibrate his ethical compass. He found solace in the community of believers, he told me. A week ago, one of my colleagues called me up and wanted to talk about spiritual journeys. "Where do you find solace?" he asked. In less intimate terms, too, the last weeks saw alms collections rising and demonstrations for social justice staged. In other words: while religion always draws attention to how this world relates to the thereafter1, Ramazan - and Roza, the practice of fasting, in particular - firmly frames this relation as a question of moral deeds and eternal salvation.

Now before the picture gets too rosy: I must admit that mischief and laziness were also on the rise during Ramazan, destruction and hypocracy, parochialism and obfuscation. Religion brings out the best and the worst of men. But my key contention in this post is that these things, while important ethically, do not matter soteriologically. No matter my mischief and laziness, my destruction and hypocracy, my parochialism and obfuscation, my moral doings and wrongdoings: as a Christian, the grace of salvation is a reality I am assured of. At the core of my faith lies the theodrama of Easter,2 and at the core of Easter lies the realization that God stands by us no matter what. Hell - the separation from God - is a reality of our own choosing only. This is the defining basis of Christianity. Which gives me great solace while facing my many wrongdoings.

To many Muslims, however, this is a scandal: both morally - how can my wrongoings "not matter"?! - and theologically - how can I be so sure that God stands by me "no matter what"? I will turn to the moral scandal below (basically by clarifying that my argument here is a soteriological one, not immediately an ethical one). But let me first clarify that I am not surprised by this reaction. Islam as a theological tradition has always taken tremendous care not to think too lowly of God; Muslims would never dare to nail God down on a commitment as unconditional as Christians believe his grace to be. When I claim that God indeed nailed Himself down on this commitment (quite literally, on the cross of Easter), I can see how this can be nothing short of a theological scandal for Muslims. In fact, it is a scandal in Christianity, too - even if Christian theologians domesticated the scandal into a dialectic of humiliation and elevation. But Islamic theologians refrain from even that solution, for fear of diminishing the greatness of God. For the Ulema, it would amount to shirk right away - and many Sufis, too, struggled a lifetime with their desire to entice God into an intimate relationship without restraining their beloved One within their own humble lives. Not only do I understand their position, I also deeply appreciate their hesitation to limit God's autonomy, which stems from a long and careful tradition of thinking of God and his greatness in ever growing abundance.

But precisely because I appreciate this ur-Islamic impulse, I cannot understand what seemed, to me, to be the prevailing mode of finding solace during this Ramazan in Lucknow. Which very muched appeared as an attempt to shift some imaginary balance between good and bad deeds so as to set the balance sheet right for judgement day. Because God's grace cannot be firmly counted upon, one can only attempt to count and calculate it - or so the argument went. "Do enough good and you enter heaven - otherwise: poor you." In many of my conversations, I had the impression to sense that such a banal logic cannot truly provide solace even to those propagating it themselves. But nobody offered a more complex soteriology. In fact, nobody ever offered a more complex (and solace-providing) Islamic theology of judgment day to me - ever since I began to study Muslims and Islam. Which makes me - as somebody who holds both Islam as a tradition and my Muslim friends as concrete persons in high esteem - sad.

To avoid any misunderstanding: My argument here is not that we should not do good and abstain from bad. Not at all. Neither is my argument that we could, perhaps, not know what is just and what is injust, what is good behavior and what is bad, and thus not be hold accountable for our doings. This, too, would be a different debate - and while it is not a simple one, my contention would by and large be that we do know at least injustice and bad behavior very well (if not necessarily their opposites). No: my question is how God deals with my behavior be it good or bad - and not about whether my behavior is good or bad in the first place. It is not a question about justice, it is a question about salvation - and about how justice and salvation relate to each other. It is, therefore, a question for Ramazan - and a question for Eid.

But how can I claim that judgment day is not about a balance sheet of one's deeds? Isn't it called "judgment" day precisely thus? Perhaps a bit of German linguistics might help to elaborate what I mean - because in German, the verb "richten" - to judge - has a double meaning. In the courtroom, a "Richter" indeed engages in the practice of "richten" after he or she drew a balance sheet of the representations by prosecution and defence. But at the same time, a carpenter "richtet" a broken chair, a steward "richtet" the compass straight, and a host "richtet" food for his guests. "Richten" thus not only means "to judge", but also "to fix", "to orientate" and "to correct". Justice on judgment day, I strongly believe, engages in this latter kind of "richten" - even if our earthly courtrooms operate differently. And, to return to this post's topic and title: I take great solace in the confidence with which my Christian tradition teaches (prominent aberrations notwithstanding) that judgment day will not only lay bare the balance sheet - no doubt about this - but also simultaneously transcend it. Yes, our deeds will be laid open, we will be confronted with what we have done, and it will be very clear what was good and what was bad. But I also firmly believe that God does not want anybody to smother in hell (unless he or she chooses to go there in free will in face of his deeds). And I ultimately take solace in the confidence with which I can - post-Easter! - say that God will indeed put things right (rather than be righteous) and make my life - and the whole world - whole.

Now: I do, of course, not expect Muslims to follow Christian soteriology - Islam's insistence on the greatness and autonomy of God is a great treasure and defining value, and it should stay that way. But precisely because of this insistence - and against the backdrop of my own quest for solace - I really have great trouble to understand how a checklist and balance-sheet morality could truly be good theology - and how it could be good Islamic theology. What I find hard to understand, let alone believe to be very Islamic, is - and please excuse my harsh words - why so many Muslims seem to think of God as a grocer. As somebody who draws his petty lists in no doubt effective, but also unforgiving ways. Isn't this an insult to the tradition of thinking of God in abundance? To me, such a view (and the morality that flows from it) really seems to be capitalism, not Islam. Solace through supplication to abundance replaced by depressing counting games. But how can capitalism ever provide solace? And, more importantly: wherever has the tradition of Allah-u-Akbar gone?

  • 1. Abrahamitic religion, that is - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. One might broaden the argument by reframing it in terms of immanence and transcendence, but I am not venturing down this route. Not here, at least
  • 2. To those who locate this core in Christmas and/or in Jesus' preaching of social justice be it said that these two, while no less important, are basically an evolution from the century-long Jewish experience of God's history God with His people - while Easter is revolution, not evolution. But this is probably a different topic altogether...