By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
(Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009.)
23 June 2012
The caption may evoke suspicion in the minds of both Muslims and Christians and Jews, let alone the non-Muslims because of today’s perception and actualization of Islam as an exclusivist religion. This paper, however, has nothing to do with the present day realities or the deep rooted historical rivalry that have resulted in lasting and increasing hostility between Islam and Semitic faiths (Christianity and Judaism) in particular and the non-Muslim world in general. The paper goes directly into the heart of the Qur’an and having reached its conclusions, corroborates them with the works of distinguished and internationally acclaimed scholars of the Christian West. As the theme is multifaceted, and undoubtedly challenging if not controversial, polemical and even unsalable, it is addressed in a very structured manner that has necessitated segmentation into a good number of sub-sections. It is hoped the reader will find the segmentation and layout logical and the discourse reader friendly.
Executive Summary: The paper begins with an introduction to the Qur’anic warnings against the Christians and the Jews (1) but without going into details, comes straight to its concluding exhortations on religious tolerance (2) and to its concluding message on religious pluralism (3). Sub-heading (4) captures the Qur’an’s approval of some of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews). The discourse then jumps to the Qur’an’s common criteria of divine Judgment for all believing communities, (5) and complements this with arguments that refute any Qur’anic basis for inter-faith enmity or hatred (6). Its concluding sub-heading (7) demonstrates that there is no Qur’anic basis to prohibit the construction of churches, synagogues or any houses of pure worship in Muslim countries – an issue that concerns all minorities in the Muslim countries today and conceivably results from a deep fear of the Muslim theologians and leadership of their youth abandoning an exclusive, atavistic and globally trivialized faith to live more comfortably in the pluralistic and progressive society of the secular world without the tag of Islam branding them as anything but noble. The sub-headings speak for themselves and conclusively establish the theme of this article.
1. Historical context of the Qur’anic warnings against the Christians and the Jews
Prophet Muhammad’s immediate audience included some Jewish and Christian tribes whose ancestors had drifted into the Arab hinterlands centuries ago, and formed their own tribes. They lived in harmony with the native Arabs and except for their religious orientations they were part of the Arab mosaic. As Muhammad (pbuh) claimed to be preaching the true faith of the Semitic Prophets (Jesus, Moses), the native Christians and Jews remained sympathetic to him as long as his mission did not cause them any alarm. Thus, around the fifth year of his mission (615), the Christian King (Negus) of the neighbouring Ethiopia agreed to offer shelter to a group of the Prophet’s followers who had fled Mecca in the face of persecution. However, in the ensuing years, following his forced migration to Medina (622), the Prophet gained converts rapidly and emerged the civil and political head of its mixed community. These aroused suspicions among the native Jewish tribes regarding the Prophet’s real motives - whether spiritual or political. But when a revelation commanded the change in qibla (direction of prayer) from Jerusalem to the Ka‘ba, the Jews became greatly alarmed. This was around the fourteenth year of the revelation, the second year in Medina (624). The Prophet was leading a prayer, and the following verse was revealed:
“Thus We have made you a justly balanced community, that you may be witnesses to humanity, and the Messenger, a witness to you. And We only established the direction of prayer (to Ka‘ba) that you were used to, that We might know those who followed the Messenger from those who turned on their heels. Indeed, it was a great (shock) except to those guided by God. (Remember,) God would not let your faith suffer decline, for indeed God is Most Compassionate and Merciful to humanity” (2:143).
Since the revelation had described the Ka‘ba, as the first House of worship built by Abraham (2:127, 3:96), the new prayer direction (qiblah) virtually appointed the Muslims the true representatives or spiritual successors of the Prophet Abraham, the forebear of their Prophet Moses, the first Patriarch of all Jewish people. From their perspective, Muhammad had hijacked their spiritual heritage and laid the foundation of an independent Semitic faith that could claim greater genuineness and purity than their own. On the other hand, the change of direction of prayer towards a direction (Ka‘ba) they identified with paganism at this stage was also hard for the Prophet’s followers to accept, and they failed to realize what went through the hearts and minds of their Jewish brethren. Thus, as the Qur’an tells the Prophet’s followers - and its words must be true lest they would have rejected it as a false book:
“There you are (O followers of the Prophet), you love them, but they do not love you, and you believe in the entire scripture. And when they meet you, they say, ‘We believe;’ but when they are alone, they bite their fingers in rage at you. Say, ‘Die in your rage;’ God knows what is within the hearts (3:119).”
In the years to follow, the Jews actively conspired with the hypocrites among the Prophet’s followers (who had entered Islam for political gains) and his enemies in Mecca – the Quraysh, who were enraged at Muhammad’s successes in Medina. The revelation, which also served as the sole guide to the Prophet and determined his course of action, warned the Prophet and his followers from time to time against the native Jews, and at times in harsh tone as illustrated below:
“You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians for your allies (awliya’): they are but the allies (awliya’) of one another, and any of you who allies with them, becomes, one of them. Indeed God does not guide the unjust people” (5:51).
“Your only ally (wali) is God, and His Messenger, and those who believe: those who keep up prayer, and give charity, and bow down (in prayer) (5:55). Therefore, whoso allies with God and His Messenger and (with) those who believe, (belong to) the party of God, and will be victorious (56). (Therefore) you who believe, do not take as your allies those, who take your religion for a joke and a sport, be they among those whom the Book was revealed before you, or among the disbelievers; but heed God, if you are (truly) faithful (57). When you call to prayer, they take it as mockery and amusement. This is because, they are a people who do not use their reason” (5:58).
2. The Qur’an’s concluding exhortations on religious tolerance
Without taxing the readers with any details of the conspiracies of the hypocrites and the Jews in the ensuing years (624-630) as alluded to in the Qur’an in mere abrupt glimpses, let us come straight to the verses revealed in its concluding phase (630-632) that were not specific to any context and represented the culmination of its message. It is therefore important to note that a passage (5:44-47) from the last revealed chapter (Surah al-Maidah) refers to the Torah and the Gospel as revealed scriptures, and thus acknowledges the Jews and Christians as people of faith.
“Indeed We have revealed the Torah (to Moses) with guidance and Light in it. The prophets who submitted themselves (to God), judged thereby those who were Jewish, and (so did) the rabbis and scholars, who were entrusted with the preservation of God’s Book of which they were witnesses. So do not fear people but fear Me; and do not sell My messages for a petty price. (Remember,) those who do not judge by what God has revealed – it is they who are the deniers (of God) (5:44). We prescribed in it for them, a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, and wounds like for like. But whoever (forgives as a gesture of) charity, this is the expiation for him. (Remember,) those who do not judge by what God has revealed – it is they who are unjust” (5:45).
“We caused Jesus, the Son of Mary, to follow in their footsteps confirming what was there before him of the Torah, and We gave him the Gospel with guidance and Light in it, confirming what was there before him of the Torah, and as a guidance and a lesson for the heedful (muttaqin) (5:46). Let the people of the Gospel judge by what God has revealed in it. (Remember,) those who do not judge by what God has revealed, it is they who are perverse” (5:47).
3. The Qur’an’s concluding message on religious pluralism
The following renditions of the relevant Qur’anic verses, including those (5:48, 49:13) dating from the concluding phase of the revelation speak for themselves:
“Every religious community (literally everyone) has a mode of worshipping God (literally, a goal to which he turns): so vie (with each other) in goodness, (and remember,) wherever you may be, God will bring you all together. Indeed God is Capable of everything” (2:148). [The interpretive translation is in agreement with those of most classical commentators including Ibn Kathir as noted by Muhammad Assad]
“We have revealed to you this divine Writ (kitab) setting forth the truth, confirming (whatever) remains of the divine writ (sent earlier), and determining what is true in it. Therefore, judge between them by what God has revealed, and do not follow their whims after what has come to you of truth. For each of you We have made a (different) code (shir‘ah), and an open way (of action) (minhaj). If God so pleased, He would have made you (all) into one (religious) community. Therefore vie (with each other) in goodness (so that) He may test you by what He has given you. (Remember, you) all will (eventually) return to God, and He will tell you in what you differed” (5:48).
“O People! We have created you as male and female, and made you into races and religious communities (lit., ‘tribes) for you to get to know each other. The noblest among you near God are those of you who are the most heedful (morally upright). Indeed God is All-Knowing and Informed” (49:13).
4. The Qur’an approves of some of the People of the Book (Christians and Jews)
The Qur’an acknowledges that some among the People of Book are righteous and heedful (muttaqin) (3:113-115), attests the honesty and integrity of others (3:75, 3:199). One of its verses dating from its concluding phase (5:66) describes them as a moderate people:
“Among the People of the Book is one, that if you entrusted him with a fortune, he would return it to you, while there is among them (yet) another, that if you entrusted him with a tiny gold coin, he would not return it to you unless you constantly chased him. This is because they say: ‘It is not our way to (deal with) these unlettered folks.’ They are telling a lie against God while they realize it” (3:75).
“There are among the People of the Book those who believe in God, and in the revelation sent to you (O Muhammad,) and in the revelation sent to them. They fear God, and do not sell God's messages for a petty price: it is they who have their reward with their Lord. Indeed God is Swift in reckoning” (3:199).
“If only the People of the Book had believed and heeded (Our message), We would have erased their evils from them and admitted them to gardens of bliss (5:65). If they had only upheld the Torah, and the Gospel, and whatever was revealed to them, they would have availed of all the blessings of life*. There is a community of moderates among them, but vile indeed is what most of them do” (5:66). [Lit., ‘from above them and below them.’]
5. The Qur’an sets common criteria of divine Judgment for all believing communities
The following renditions of the relevant verses (quoted only partly to avoid bulk) are self explanatory, and bring the Muslims, Christians, Jews and all believing humanity on the same spiritual footing:
“Those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Christians and Sabians - and (in fact) any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good deeds - shall have their reward with their Lord. There will be no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).
“Those who believe, and those who are Jews, and Sabians and Christians - (in fact) any who believe in God and the Last Day, and do good deeds - there will be no fear upon them, nor shall they grieve” (5:69).
“Those who believe, and those who are Jews and Sabians and Christians and Magians, and those who associate (others with God) - God will judge between them on the Day of Judgment. Indeed, God is Witness to all things” (22:17). [Message repeated in the verses, 4:124, 64:9, 65:11]
6. There is no Qur’anic basis to hate Christians and Jews or any community
The verses 5:51, 5:55/56 (1 bove) are often cited in isolation and out of historical context to imply that for all times, the Muslims should not take the Jews and Christians as their friends or allies. But the Qur’an’s concluding exhortations on religious tolerance and religious pluralism (2, 3 above), approval of some of the People of the Book (4 above) and its repeated assertion that all faith communities will be judged on the basis of their deeds (5 above), comprehended collectively, rule out any such notion. Moreover, the Qur’an offers further illustrations to leave no ambiguity on this matter.
i. In the context of the revelation, the Qur’an forbade the Muslims to ally with those only who fought against them over religion, and expelled them from their homelands, and helped (others) in their expulsion (60:9). Accordingly, it did not forbid Muslims to be virtuous and just to those who did not fight against them over religion, nor drove them from their homelands (60:8).
“It may be that God will bring about love between you and those of them you (now) regard as your enemies. (Remember,) God is Able (to do anything) and God is Most Forgiving and Merciful (60:7). God does not forbid you to be virtuous (tabarru) and just to those who did not fight you over religion, nor drove you from your homelands. Indeed, God loves the just (8). God only forbids you to befriend those who fought against you over religion, and expelled you from your homelands, and backed (others) in your expulsion; and whoever befriends them – it is they who are unjust” (60:9).
ii. In its concluding phase, the Qur’an allows Muslim men to marry Christian and Jewish women (5:5), and thus make them their benefactors or allies. (9:71).
“This day (all) good things are made lawful for you. The food of those to whom Scripture [Book] was given is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them; and so are chaste believing women (mu’minat), and chaste women from among those (who have been) given the Scripture before you - after you give them their dowers (and take them in wedlock) as chaste women, not in lewdness, nor as secret love-companions. Anyone who rejects faith (in God), his deed is in vain, and he will be among the lost ones in the hereafter” (5:5).
“The believing men (mu’minin) and the believing women (mu’minat) are protectors (awliya’) of each other: they enjoin the good and restrain the evil; they keep up prayer and give charity, and obey God and His Messenger. They are those on whom God will have mercy. (Remember,) God is Almighty, Wise” (9:71).
iii. The Qur’an calls upon Muslims to debate with the People of the Book in the most beautiful and logical manner (16:125, 29:46), except with those of them who oppress others (29:46).
“Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and pleasant counseling, and debate with them in the best manner. Indeed God knows best who is straying from His path, and He knows best the (rightly) guided” (16:125).
“And do not debate with the People of the Book, but in a way that is better (than theirs), except with those of them who oppress (others); and say ‘We believe in what was revealed to us, and what was revealed to you, for our God and your God is One (and the same), and it is to Him that we (all) submit (muslimun)’” (29:46).
Thus, any generalization of the context specific Qur’anic verses 5:51, 5:55/56 or any other verse for that matter to foment hatred against contemporary Christians and Jews and other confessional communities will be tantamount to distorting the message of the Qur’an. To the critic, however, this may sound apologetic, as it contradicts the ground reality of the present day Muslim world, where anti-Semitic sentiments run high. It may therefore be useful to clarify this by drawing on modern secular scholarship. Thus, to quote the distinguished contemporary scholar Karen Armstrong :
“Anti-Semitism is a Christian vice. Hatred of the Jews became marked in the Muslim world after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. It is significant that Muslims were compelled to import anti-Jewish myths from Europe and translate into Arabic such virulently anti-Semitic texts as the Protocols of the elders of Zion, because they had no such tradition of their own. Because of this new hostility towards the Jewish people, some Muslims now quote the passages in the Qur’an that refer to Muhammad’s struggle with the three rebellious Jewish tribes to justify their prejudice. By taking these verses out of context, they have distorted both the message of the Qur’an and the attitude of the Prophet, who himself felt no such hatred of Judaism.”
Thomas W. Arnold (1864-1930) a distinguished scholar and historian of Islam carried out an extensive research lasting almost two decades to dig into the reasons of the phenomenal spread of Islam in its early centuries, which appeared in his landmark publication, ‘Preaching of Islam’. The following remark in its conclusive chapter states :
"In the preceding pages it has been shown that the theory of the Muslim faith enjoins toleration and freedom of religious life for all those followers of other faiths who pay tribute in return for protection …, The very existence of so many Christian sects and communities in countries that have been for centuries under Mohammadan rule is an abiding testimony to the toleration they have enjoyed, and shows that the persecutions, they have from time to time been called upon to endure at the hands of bigots and fanatics, have been excited by some special and local circumstances, rather than inspired by a settled principle of intolerance." He also notes: ‘(Caliph) Umar is recorded to have ordered an allowance of money and food to be made to some Christian lepers, apparently out of the public funds .
7. There is no Qur’anic basis to prohibit the construction of churches, synagogues or any house of pure worship in Muslim country
The Qur’an’s tenets and pronouncements on religious harmony and pluralism as reviewed above refute any suggestion to obstructing or forbidding the diverse religious communities to building their houses of worship. The Qur’an illustrates this further in its following verses/ passages.
“…Had God not driven people, some (communities) by others – monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques in which God's name is regularly proclaimed, would have been demolished. (Remember,) God helps those who help His (cause). Indeed God is Powerful, Almighty” (22:40).
“(Lit is God’s Light) In houses God has permitted to be exalted (all places of pure worship). His name is mentioned in them, and He is glorified in them morning and evening (24:36), by men whom neither business nor trading distract from remembering God, who keep up prayer and practice zakah and fear the Day of Judgment in which the hearts and eyes will be transfixed (24:37) (hoping that) God may reward them for the best of what they did, and give them more out of His Grace; and (remember) God provides for anyone He wishes beyond any measure” (24:38).
These Qur’anic pronouncements and for that matter, the entire essay may appear an eye wash, a camouflage or sheer propaganda - if not a blatant lie today in the backdrop of the restrictions imposed on the Christians and non-Muslims in Muslim lands including the prohibition on constructing churches and houses of worship. Thomas Arnold sets the record right. Commenting on the construction of churches in the Islamic Caliphate, he declares, "We have numerous instances recorded, both by Christian and Mohammedan historians, of the building of new churches.” He substantiates this remark by citing examples of the churches and monasteries that were built in Muslim cities, even the new cities built by early Caliphs for the Muslims . Yet another outstanding historian of Islam from the Christian world, Philip K. Hitti, credited with the authorship of the masterly treatise, History of the Arabs, testifies to the religious freedom that was granted to the vanquished Christian settlements by Caliph Umar /his generals as typified by the terms of surrender of Damascus (AH 635):
“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful! This is what Khalid ibn al Walid will offer to the inhabitants of Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them the security for their lives, property and churches. Their city wall will not be demolished, neither shall any Moslem be quartered in their houses. Thereunto we give to them the pact of God and the protection of the Prophet, the caliphs and the believers. So long as they pay the poll tax, nothing shall befall them." .
1. Karen Armstrong, Islam, A short history, New York, 2002, p. 21/22.
2. Thomas W. Arnold, Preaching of Islam, 2nd revised edition, 1913, reprinted Delhi 1990, p. 419/420.
3. Ibid., p.57.
4. Ibid., p. 66/67:
· “In the reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705), Athanasius, a wealthy Christian erected a fine church in his native city Edessa. He also built a number of churches and monasteries in various parts of Egypt.
· Some Christian chamberlains in the service of `Abd al-Aziz b. Marwan (brother of `Abd al-Malik), the governor of Egypt, obtained permission to build a church in Halwan, which was dedicated to St. John, though this town was a Muslim creation.
· In A.D. 711 a Jacobite church was built at Antioch by order of the Caliph al-Walid (705-715).
· In the first year of the reign of Yazid II (A.D.720) Mar Elias, the Jacobite Patriarch of Antioch, consecrated a new church, which he had caused to be built; and in the following year he consecrated another church in the village of Samada, in the district of Antioch, and the only opposition he met with was from a rival Christian sect that accepted the council of Chaldecon.
· Khalid al-Qasari, who was governor of Arabian and Persian Iraq from 724-738, built a church for his mother, who was a Christian to worship in.
· In 759 the building of a church at Nisibis was completed, on which the Nestorian bishop, Cyprian, had expended a sum of 56,000 Dinars. From the same century dates the church Abu Sirjah in the ancient Roman fortress in old Cairo.
· In the reign of al-Mahdi (775-785) a church was erected in Baghdad for the use of the Christian prisoners that had been taken captive during the numerous campaigns against the Byzantine empire.
· In the reign of Haroon al-Rashid (786-809) another church was built in Baghdad, and yet another in Basra though it was a Muslim foundation, having been created by the Caliph Umar.
· al-Mamun (813-833) gave permission to two of his chamberlains to erect a church on al-Muqattam, a hill near Cairo; and to a wealthy Christian named Bukkam, to build several fine churches at Bura in Egypt.
· The Nestorian patriarch, Timotheus, who died AD 820 erected a church at Takrit and a monastery at Baghdad.
· In the 10th century, the beautiful Coptic church of Safayan was built in Fustat. A new church was built at Jiddah in the reign of al-Zahr, the 7th Fatimid caliph of Egypt (1020-1025). New churches and monasteries were also built in the reign of Abbasid al Mustadi dedicated to Our Lady the Pure Virgin.
5. Philip K.Hitti, History of the Arabs, 1937, 10th edition; London 1993, p. 150.
June 23, 2012
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.
This is the best exposition I have seen yet of Quranic exhortations affirming the religious observations of others and putting good deeds at the top of the hierarchy of what pleases God. This is important because exxcessive conviction in the exclusive validity of our faiths makes us less human.