By Muhammad Yunus & Ashfaque Ullah Syed
09 June, 2015
(Published exclusively on New Age Islam with Permission of the authors and publishers)
13. The Qur’an and the People of the Book
13.1. Historical Context of Inter-Faith Relation
The Christians and Jews had remained sympathetic to the Prophet through his early years in Medina as he claimed to be preaching the true faith of their prophets and posed no political threat to either of them. So the revelation had no complaints against them. However, as he emerged the civil and political head of Medina and changed the direction of prayer1 from Jerusalem to the Ka‘ba signalling a separate religious identity of his followers, the Jews grew hostile to him and conspired against him with his Meccan foes. The tone of the Qur’an also changed (Ch. 3.6). However, the verses revealed in the concluding phase of the Qur’an are of utmost significance, as they were not specific to any context and represented the culmination of the Qur’anic 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. However, the Qur’an asks them not to twist the message sent down to them, and to be guided by them.
“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)
13.2. The Qur’an Approves Of Some of the People of the Book
The Qur’an acknowledges that some among the People of Book are righteous and heedful (Muttaqin) (3:113-115/Ch. 8.1), attests the honesty and integrity of others (3:75, 3:199) and describes them as a moderate people (5:66).
“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’]
13.3. On dealing with the People of the Book
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 counselling, 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).
The Qur’an however censures the Christians and Jews for giving too much authority to the clergy (9:31), and for their claims to exclusivity (2:111, 2:135).
“They say: ‘None shall enter the garden, unless he is a Jew or a Christian.’ These are their desires. Say: ‘Bring your proofs, if indeed you are truthful’” (2:111).
“They say: ‘Be Jews, or Christians and you will be (rightly) guided.’ You say: ‘Nay, (we belong to) the creed of Abraham, the *true (believer in One God), and he was not among those who associate (others with God)’” (2:135). [Lit., ‘who turned away from all false notions about God’.]
“They take their priests and their monks for lords instead of God, as well as Christ, the Son of Mary, though they were commanded to serve none, but One God. (Indeed), there is no god but He - unparalleled is He in Glory beyond all that they associate with Him” (9:31).
In the immediate context of the revelation, the Qur’an cautions the Muslims that the People of the book would never be happy with them, unless they followed their religion (2:120). Accordingly, it refrains them from allying with those of the People of the Book and disbelievers who ridiculed their religion (5:51, 5:57); and reminds them that their real allies were no other than God and the Prophet, and the fellow believers (5:55).
“Neither the Jews, nor the Christians will be satisfied with you (O Muhammad,) unless you follow their creed. Say: ‘Indeed, the guidance from God is (true) guidance’, and if you were to follow their whims, after what has reached you of the knowledge, you will not have any protector or helper against God” (2:120).
“You who believe, do not take the Jews and Christians for your allies (Auliya’)*: they are but the allies (Auliya’)* 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). *[The word is the plural form of Wali, which is also rendered elsewhere as ‘protector’, ‘friend’ as fitting the text.]
“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).
13.4. There Is No Qur’anic Basis to Hate Christians and Jews or Any Community
The verses 5:51, 5:55/56 above 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’anic pronouncements under 13.2/3 above, and its broader message on universal brotherhood of humanity (Ch. 9) rule out any such notion. Moreover, the Qur’an offers further illustrations to leave no ambiguity on this matter.
1. In the context of the revelation, the Qur’an forbade the Muslims to ally with only those who fought against them for religion, and expelled them from their homelands, and helped (others) in their expulsion (60:9/Ch. 12.5). Accordingly, it did not forbid Muslims to be virtuous and just to those who did not fight against them for religion, nor drove them from their homelands (60:8/Ch. 12.5).
2. In its concluding phase, the Qur’an allows Muslim men to marry Christian and Jewish women (5:5/Ch. 32.3), and thus make them their benefactors or allies. (9:71/Ch. 33.6).
Thus, any generalization of the noted Qur’anic verses to foment hatred against contemporary Christians and Jews 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 Karen Armstrong:2
“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.”
1. 2:143 [Note 98/Ch.3.]
2. Karen Armstrong, Islam, A short history, New York, 2002, p. 21/22.
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. KhaledAbou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.