By Ziauddin Sardar
June 30, 2008
The plurality of religion is a constant and recurring theme in the Qur'an. Far from adopting a hostile attitude to other religions, the Qur'an promotes acceptance of religious plurality and treats other religions with equality. It recognises that different faiths have different laws and ways of knowing and understanding God but emphasises the common ground of "doing good": values and morals that promote goodness, virtue, and peace are integral to all faiths and more basic than differences in outward form and rituals.
Exploring themes forces us to see the Qur'an as a whole. And since any given theme is mentioned, repeated and elaborated in several places in the Qur'an, it requires us to jump from verse to verse, Madeleine. There is no logic here except the logic of my style. I mention the verses as I write about them. And I do not mention all the verses on a particular theme either - only a select few.
We have already seen that the Qur'an uses stories from the Old and the New Testaments to illustrate some of its arguments. Both the Torah and the Bible are regarded by the Qur'an as revealed texts. "It was God", we are told, "who revealed the Torah (to Moses): therein was guidance and light" (5:44). And to Moses, God said: "I have chosen you for myself. Go, you and your brother, with my signs, and make sure that you remember me" (20:41-42). Regarding the New Testament and Jesus, we read: "We sent Jesus, son of Mary: we gave him the gospel and put compassion and mercy in the heart of his followers" (57:27). The "name of God is commemorated in abundant measure" not just in mosques but also "in monasteries, churches, synagogue" (22:46). The term used in the Qur'an to describe both Jewish and Christian communities is "people of the book", who are said to be constantly "humbling themselves before God" and who "will have their rewards with their Lord" (3:199).
Jews and Muslims, I think, are closer to each other than Muslims and Christians. Both have similar codes of conduct, laws and jurisprudence (Sharia law in Islam and the Halacha in Judaism). The dietary arrangements of both religions are almost the same (Halal and kosher); and charity is an important feature of both (Sadaqua and Tsedaka).
This is why, I think, Jews and Muslims had excellent relations in history: when persecuted in Christendom, Jews always found a welcoming refuge in Islam. In Moorish Spain, Jews and Muslims produced a dynamic, learned society with a strong accent on multiculturalism. Despite this, controversy has arisen relating to certain verses which have often been used to argue that the Qur'an does not look at Jews with favour. 5:82 is a good example: "You prophet", we read, "are sure to find that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God; you are sure to find that the closest in affection are those who say 'We are Christians' for there are people devoted to learning and ascetics". The context of this verse has a familiar contemporary ring. It was revealed in Medina where the Jews exercised considerable political power. Moreover, the Meccans who migrated to that city with the prophet were canny businessmen and the Jews feared the migrants would capture their trade. Hence the animosity. The verse describes the particular situation in Medina at a particular point in time. And at that time it represents a very human situation, one which poses a challenge to the nascent Muslim. It is not intended as a general ruling - it could hardly be so since it would violate what the Qur'an is saying repeatedly elsewhere.
But regardless of 5:82, Muslims and Christians have not enjoyed a close relationship in history. I think this is largely because of the Christian belief that salvation can be obtained only through Christ, a notion that makes Christianity, in the eyes of many Muslims, rather exclusivist.
So a question for Madeleine and other bloggers on this site: what's preventing Christianity from recognising Islam as a revealed religion and extend the ecumenical courtesy that Islam gives to Christianity?
How Far Does This Plurality Stretch?
By Madeleine Bunting
June 30, 2008
Phew, Zia. You've had been thumbing back and forth through my increasingly battered Qur'an on this one. Well, perhaps you will explain why you chose so many verses for this one and why you had me going back and forth through the text. Is there a logic to the order you gave us? And why so many verses, some of which (20:41-42) seem a little wide of the theme? Perhaps all will become clear.
Amongst these verses are some absolutely remarkable statements. Perhaps the most striking of all is verse 109:06. It sounds so astonishingly contemporary. "You have your religion, I have mine." A model for tolerance which has become very popular.
Other verses simply express powerfully the universal truths which almost all human wisdom traditions recognise, such as 25:63 - "the servants of the Lord are those who walk humbly on the earth". That, of course, has an added environmental significance these days. Humbly can also mean walking lightly in terms of carbon footprint.
Also, there are many striking statements of plurality. They are a remarkable collection expressing a wisdom which was unparalleled at that time in that region. But it seems to me that the tolerance doesn't go further than the people of the book. Can you clarify the prophet's view of the "Meccan idolaters": did he tolerate their faith? Or are they the disbelievers who will suffer in hell? I find it a little confusing to see the harsh punishment awaiting disbelievers and the tolerance of those who don't believe in Islam. Can you help on this?
And what about tolerance beyond the Jews and Christians? What is the attitude towards Hinduism and Buddhism on the subcontinent? How far does this plurality stretch