By Leena El-Ali
(December 12, 2009) – When violence is committed in the name of Islam, the perpetrators often say that Muslims were never meant to enjoy good relations with followers of other religions, specifically Jews and Christians. They invariably quote verses from the Qur’an which they argue prove that Jews and Christians are inherently hostile to Muslims. Not surprisingly, some non-Muslims often point to these quotes as evidence that Muslims are a threat to their way of life, justifying their own hostility toward Islam.
But is that what these verses really mean?
It’s often forgotten that the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad over the 23-year period of his spiritual and political leadership, beginning when he was 40 and ending with his death in 632 AD. As its verses were transmitted, according to Islamic belief, by the archangel Gabriel to Muhammad, they necessarily addressed challenges facing the nascent Muslim community in addition to the theological and spiritual matters any religion seeks to expound.
Thus while nearly two-thirds of the Qur’an recounts the lives of the Hebrew prophets and of Jesus and Mary as expressions of the spiritual ideal, the remaining third sets out specific rules of conduct for the followers of the then-new Islamic religion.
Broadly speaking, these rules cover two major themes: good conduct in one’s personal, social and familial life, and specific commentary on a past or present event—including political and communal problems.
The verses deemed hostile to Jews and Christians fall into the last category. For example, while both communities are respectfully referred to as “People of the Book”—people who have been sent their own scripture by the same God who gave the Qur’an to the people of the Arabian peninsula—most such verses (about three dozen out of over 6,000) speak of Christian and Jewish tensions with the early Muslims. Muhammad’s preaching was new and therefore viewed with suspicion and considered illegitimate by most of the Jews and Christians of the time.
This is hardly surprising when one considers that it has historically been impossible for the vast majority of the followers of any religion to embrace the founder of another religion who appears in their midst.
Moreover, verses considered hostile to Jews and Christians must be read in context: at the time that some of them were recorded, for example, a Jewish tribe allied to the Muslims had betrayed them. Naturally, Muslims were warned against seeking protectors or allies among other communities.
But should instructions in the Qur’an relating to such specific incidents be generalised to apply to the relationship between Muslims, Christians and Jews today?
The Torah and Gospel are mentioned around a dozen times each in the Qur’an—always favourably–and are described as “a guidance and light” to mankind. Those among their followers who are righteous—alongside righteous Muslims, “no fear shall come upon them neither shall they grieve” (Qur’an 2:38).
Moses is mentioned in the Qur’an by name—Musa in Arabic—no less than 136 times, through the retelling of familiar stories for the reader of the Bible: his confrontation with Pharaoh over the bondage of the children of Israel in Egypt in particular is repeated many times.
Jesus meanwhile is mentioned by name – Isa in Arabic—25 times, as well as by titles such as the Messiah, son of Mary, the Word of God, and the Spirit of God over the span of 15 chapters. Biblical stories of his life are retold in the Qur’an, including his virgin birth, healing of the blind and the leper, and raising of the dead; chapter five is in fact named after the Last Supper. Mary is mentioned 34 times by name, has a chapter named after her and is described as the highest-ranking woman in all of creation.
Muslims are even told that intermarriage with Jews and Christians is permitted under Islam, though, both because of patriarchal custom and because the relevant verse appears to be addressed to men, it has usually been difficult for a Muslim woman to enter into marriage with a Jewish or Christian man (who would be considered the head of the household).
Not a single reference in the Qur’an to either Jesus or the Gospel, to Moses or the Torah, is anything but affirming and respectful. This is overwhelmingly reassuring to those who believe that God would not send mankind one religion and allow it to take hold of millions of souls for centuries only to then send another to “perfect” or “complete” it—as some Muslims today believe of the intended role of Islam vis-à-vis Judaism and Christianity. There is a theological difference with Christian belief: Jesus is a highly regarded prophet, rather than God’s son. Still, the overall message is of coexistence, not division.
It’s such a tragedy that some of us grasp at whatever we can to nurture a feeling of fear or hatred of what we don’t understand, projecting this fear onto our, or others’, holy books—in this case the Qur’an. If we listen to its words with an open mind, we might be reassured—if not left in awe—by its resonant and familiar message.
* Leena El-Ali is Director of Partners in Humanity, a programme that promotes vibrant and constructive Muslim-Western relations, at the conflict transformation organisation Search for Common Ground in Washington, DC. This article first appeared in The Bradenton Herald and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) as part of a series on the myth that Islam is inherently violent.