Qur’an 2: Surprise: the Apostles were Muslims

I’m a British humanist reading The Qur’an (Tarif Khalidi’s translation) and blogging about it as I go. I’m doing my best not to make assumptions, apart from assuming it was written – not necessarily in the order given – by a man (or men) in Arabia in the 7th century. I realise that some Muslims will consider the whole exercise blasphemous, and some anti-theists will say it’s not critical enough. The aim is not to be offensive, but simply to share a personal, non-scholarly, view of one of the most influential texts of our time. [More…]

Chapter Three “The House of Imran”.

Let’s start with some good stuff. If you want to go to heaven, the author says you must: be pious; restrain anger; pardon people’s offences; ask others for forgiveness if you make a mistake, and avoid stubbornly carrying on doing something knowing it’s not working out. And you mustn’t be miserly.

I guess most people would be happy with that as a non-exclusive list – apart from the “pious” bit. All the rest are applications of the Golden Rule.

The eponymous “Imran” is apparently Jesus’s grandfather, Mary’s father: “God chose Adam and Noah, the House of Abraham and the House of Imran above all mankind: a progeny one from another”. There’s a lot in this chapter about Christianity – though not necessarily Christianity as we know it.

But first he attempts to sort out the problem of competing interpretations of the Qur’an.

He says that some verses are precise – these are “the very heart of the Book” – and some are “ambiguous”. People who focus on the ambiguity and try to “unravel its interpretation” are wayward, as only God knows the correct interpretation.

As the whole Qur’an is claimed to be a revelation from God, it seems strange that He put in anything ambiguous in the first place, especially as He then says (via the author) it’s wrong to try to understand it. It implies that readers should focus on the parts of the Qur’an that are clear and precise – they don’t need any interpretation – and ignore the ambiguous verses. Anyone who claims to know what they mean is second-guessing God. Doesn’t that put a lot of scholars out of business?

Anyhow, on to Christianity…

It seems that the author thinks that Judaism and Christianity are more or less a single religion; that the Qur’an is a continuation of the same series of revelations as the Jewish Torah and the “Evangel” (the Christian gospel), collectively referred to as “The Book”; that that religion is all about surrendering to the One God, aka “Islam”; and that those who follow it are called “Muslims”.

He complains that the People of the Book argue foolishly about whether Abraham was a Jew or a Christian when actually he was neither, since “the Torah and the Evangel were revealed only after his time” making Abraham “a man of pristine faith, a Muslim…”. And when Jesus “detected unbelief” among his supporters, his Apostles replied “We…believe in God. Witness that we are Muslims….”. “The right religion with God is Islam.”

One thing is for sure: as far as the author of the Qur’an is concerned, his God and that of the Jews and Christians is the same.

He says that Imran’s wife, Mary’s mother, dedicated the new-born Mary to God, so preparing the ground for the Virgin Birth, which was apparently an easy task for God, as he’d already created Adam “from dust”. He also includes a story about Jesus as a child making a clay bird which then comes to life. Apart from the Virgin Birth, this material isn’t in the New Testament (aka “Evangel”) at all, but comes from gospels that didn’t make it through the selection process, a process that had been completed over 200 years earlier.

(By the way, Imran’s wife isn’t named in the Qur’an. Apparently she’s called ‘Hannah’ in Muslim tradition and ‘St.Anne’ by Catholics, who call Imran ‘St.Joachim’. Catholic doctrine is that Mary’s conception took place in the normal way but was “Immaculate”, meaning she was born without original sin. Hmm…)

But there are bigger differences between Christianity as we know it and what we hear from the Qur’an’s author.

I already knew that Islam views Jesus as ‘just another prophet‘, with no special ‘Son of God’ status. The author indeed says again that God does not “distinguish between any” of the prophets from Moses to Jesus, or the author. But it was a bit of a surprise to see Jesus referred to specifically as “a messenger to the Children of Israel” and “Christ”.

According to verses at the end of the next chapter (no, the ordering isn’t logical) the crucifixion and resurrection didn’t really happen. The Jews who claimed they “killed Christ Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of God” had got it wrong. “They killed him not nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them.” Instead “God raised him up to him”.
The penalty for those Jews who got it wrong was that God “…forbade them certain delectable foods which had been made licit to them” – it doesn’t say what the foods were – a pretty minor penalty compared to any who slipped into usury and disbelief, who were sent to the flames.

And he rejects the doctrine of the Trinity, as God is One: “O people of the Book, do not be excessive in your religion”, but stick to “the truth”, which means, in the case of Jesus, “do not say ‘Three!’..God in Truth is One…”. But it’s not clear who he thinks the “Three” – the Trinity – are. He mentions Jesus, Mary and “a spirit”, and there’s no mention of “Father, Son and Holy Ghost”.

I’m no theologian, but to judge from this chapter, the author didn’t know much about Christian theology.

Instead he keeps coming back to the common ground of the People of the Book and how many of them have gone astray. Better, he says, to “Bring the Torah and recite if you are sincere….God has spoken the truth. So follow the religion of Abraham…”, while dissenters who turn away from revelation’s “manifest signs” head for “terrible torment” on the Day of Resurrection.

The “manifest signs” are obvious to “people possessed of minds”. They include the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the rotation of night and day. “…you [God] did not create all this in vain”. This is the 7th century version of the ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ argument.

Alongside the theology, he talks about war, with verses about battle, retreat and the “Hypocrites” who challenge Muhammed’s military leadership. The Qur’an doesn’t seem to do history or narrative. There’s a reference to a battle at “Badr” – a victory over the Meccans against the odds according to my translation. But there’s no description of this or any other military engagement, or explanation of what the fighting was about, apart from the enemy being “unbelievers”.

Military failure is down to human weakness, failure to support Muhammed as leader, or Satan causing people to run away from the battle. Success is down to God, who tests his troops from time to time and forgives them if appropriate. There’s some important stuff about life and death…

There’s no need to worry about getting killed in battle, whatever the odds, because God is on your side and anyone killed “in the path of God” is not really dead but “alive with the Lord” and looking forward to meeting up again with those who will follow.

There’s a general injunction against getting too infatuated with your present life and material things. Instead being with God is the “fairest homecoming” and “…this present life is but the rapture of delusion”. If you’re a believer, the Afterlife will be better than this one for sure.

In any case: “A soul cannot die save by God’s leave, at a date to be determined”. On the face of it, that doesn’t forbid suicide – the traditional Muslim teaching – but implies that success or failure of a suicide attempt is pre-determined by God.

Scattered among the theological and military verses are the usual warnings about unbelievers and blasphemers going to hell. As far as I can see, there are four categories of unbeliever:

  • Actual enemies who you’re fighting.
  • Unbelievers who are potential allies. The advice is not to adopt them as allies in preference to believers.
  • Those People of the Book, apparently “most”, who fall short in their belief. “They shall not harm you but are merely a little nuisance”.
  • A final category covered by the injunction not to “adopt as intimate friends those outside your circle” as they will “do all in their power to corrupt you and long to do you harm” as they only pretend to believe.
    I guess it’s only human for a new, embattled movement – or any threatened religious or racial minority – to fear “The Other”. But it’s an unhelpful idea applied out of context to a modern, plural society. 

Near the end of the chapter there’s this verse:

“I disregard not the works of any who works among you, be they male or female, the one is like the other”.

That’s an interesting prelude to the next chapter “Women”….

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Author: HumanistJ

I'm a humanist - someone who thinks you can live a good life without believing in anything supernatural. I chair South West London Humanists, I'm a trustee of Humanists UK and its Dialogue Officer. This blog is purely my personal view.

19 thoughts on “Qur’an 2: Surprise: the Apostles were Muslims”

  1. 1. Verse 7 can be read two ways in arabic. One reading says only God knows the hidden meaning. But the second way – which most muslim schools like Sunni theologians and shias and Sufis – says that the Firmly Rooted in Knowledge also know the hidden meaning of the Quran. See our article on this subject here:

    1) In one reading, the last part reads as: “No one knows its ta’wil except God [full stop]. And those who are firmly rooted in knowledge say: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.” The first reading ends the sentence after “except God” and then begins a new sentence. This reading means that the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known by God alone and no one else – was historically favoured by a minority of Muslims known as the literalists but seems to be common in modern English translations.

    2) In another equally valid reading, the last part says: “No one knows it’s ta’wil except God and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge, saying: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.” The second reading, according to which the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known both by God and a group of people called “the firmly rooted in knowledge” (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) is followed by numerous groups of Muslims among the Sunni and the Shi‘a – the theologians (mutakallimun), the Philosophers (falasifah), the Sufis, the Twelver Shi‘a, and the Ismaili Shi‘a.

    This second reading is supported by and consistent with the rules of Arabic grammar in which the second verb (yaquluna = “they say, they are saying”) describes the state (hal) of the subject as follows: “No one knows its ta’wil except those firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) saying (yaquluna): We believe in it. All is from our Lord.” This is similar to other Arabic phrases like la ya’tika ‘Abdullahi wa-zaydun yaqulu: ana masrurun bi-ziyaratika = “Nobody comes except ‘Abdullah and Zayd saying: I am happy visiting you.”

    http://ismailignosis.com/2015/12/28/esoteric-interpretations-of-the-quran-the-foundations-of-shia-ismaili-tawil/

    2. The word Islam and Muslim as used in the Quran mean “submission” in the general sense. They don’t refer to a separate religious or confessional identity. Many translators like Muhammad Asad make this point – you cannot read muslim and islam except as submitter and submission. Fred Donner a historian has shown that the word Islam and Muslim don’t become a confessional communal religion and identity until 100 years after Muhammad.

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    1. Thanks for this. Quick comments:
      1. I’m not an academic and can only take the words in English as presented by the person who did my translation. He’s a very distinguished scholar himself Tarif Khalili and his translation got good reviews, which is why I chose it. Cynically, I would say that it’s not surprising that people who consider themselves “firmly rooted in knowledge” choose to make the alternative interpretation!
      2. I think we’re saying the same thing here, and that was a surprise to me. The author of the Qur’an clearly didn’t think he was creating a new religion but instead developing and reinforcing an existing one.

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      1. Well the caveat I would add is that those who are Jews and Christians fall under the “submitter” category too. muslim and islam are not exclusive categories in the qur’an. They are inclusive ones. Thats why Abraham and Moses and Jacob and Jesus apostles are called muslims.

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      2. Indeed. That’s the point. The author didn’t see any difference and certainly wasn’t suggesting that he was creating a new religion. Instead he thought that Jews and Christians were more or less “believing” followers of the same monotheistic religion and that he was simply continuing it.

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    2. I’ve just re-read the verse about interpretation: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B0sBlgygEXRqTXFZYjh6bndEVVE/view?usp=sharing . It says “….But none knows its interpretation save God, while those deeply rooted in knowledge say ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord.’ Yet none remembers save those possessed of minds.”
      I can’t see how this means “none knows its interpretation save God AND those deeply rooted in knowledge”.
      Even if it did, isn’t there a logical issue here. If “those firmly rooted in knowledge” did also know what the ambiguous sections mean, doesn’t that also imply that they would all have the same interpretation?
      I should stress that I very much welcome those who make benign interpretations of the Qur’an. Sadly, I don’t think this verse helps them.

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      1. Once again your are using one translation but there are two possible translations. We have explained the mechanics of the Arabic in our first comment already.

        2) In another equally valid reading, the last part says: “No one knows it’s ta’wil except God AND those who are firmly rooted in knowledge, SAYING: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.” The second reading, according to which the ta’wil of the Qur’an is known both by God and a group of people called “the firmly rooted in knowledge” (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) is followed by numerous groups of Muslims among the Sunni and the Shi‘a – the theologians (mutakallimun), the Philosophers (falasifah), the Sufis, the Twelver Shi‘a, and the Ismaili Shi‘a.

        This second reading is supported by and consistent with the rules of Arabic grammar in which the second verb (yaquluna = “they say, they are saying”) describes the STATE (hal) of the subject as follows: “No one knows its ta’wil except those firmly rooted in knowledge (rasikhun fi’l-‘ilm) saying (yaquluna): We believe in it. All is from our Lord.” This is similar to other Arabic phrases like la ya’tika ‘Abdullahi wa-zaydun yaqulu: ana masrurun bi-ziyaratika = “Nobody comes except ‘Abdullah and Zayd saying: I am happy visiting you.”

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      2. Agree with this point as it would imply that those who know their meaning besides God would be able to make it public and then everyone is in on it!
        There is another interpretation: when you consider the “mutashabihat” as those verses which give information about things not accessible to human beings now, like the life after death e.g., In this case the words of the verses are clearly understood as meaningful sentences but their reality is known to God only. Take for example dreams, where you see something; you can explain what you saw to others and they can understand it too. But the meaning of it all becomes clear only when the dream is realized. There are examples of this in the Chapter Joseph where same word “taaweel” is used to refer to the reality of dreams.

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      3. I guess that depends whether you believe in “the reality of dreams”. I’m afraid there’s zero evidence that dreams foretell the future, as they are supposed to do in Joseph. They are simply a feature of how our brains deal with information and emotions. Similarly, there is no evidence that “things not accessible to human beings” exist in the sense that it means here (obviously, there are plenty of things, such as radio waves or neutrons, that are not accessible via our senses, and are not features of our subjective experience, but are accessible in other ways.

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  2. As for your translation, just keep in mind that translating 3:7 where only God alone knows the inner meaning or ta’wil does not accurately portray Muslim history and tradition. It is a Wahhabi inspired translation and, as you noted, governs how the Qur’an as a whole is read. By translating it to exclude anyone but God knowing the meaning of the Qur’an, you run into logical contradictions throughout the text.

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      1. Just be aware that most modern translations of the Quran privilege literalist Sunni readings and the translation of 3:7 is a prime example. As we said, most Muslim schools – Shia, Sunni theologians, Sufis, and Philosophers like Avicenna – all of whom are far more influential in Islamic thought than Sunni literalists – translate 3:7 as “And no one knows its meaning except God AND THE FIRMLY ROOTED IN KNOWEDGE, saying: We believe in it, all is from our Lord.”

        We bring this up because your commentary implies it is rather nonsensical for God to reveal verses that nobody knows the meaning to except Him. And we agree with you on that. But that is why there is an equally valid translation that reads differently, has more support in Muslim tradition, and avoids the logical issues you pointed out.

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    1. Thanks. I welcome your comments! As a non-Muslim atheist/humanist, I decided to read and comment on the Qur’an as I found it, having selected a well-reviewed, reputable translation. Obviously, I see it as a human work, in common with other holy books. I’m aware that Islam as it is today, the product of 1500 years of development, is more than the Qur’an. I’m also aware that my own thinking may develop as I work my way through it. So watch this space!

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      1. Word of warning. Chapters 8 and 9 are the ones mostly revealed in a war context. Do not think these came out of nowhere, these are later verses that came when Muslim armies faced off with other armies. Either way people often like to use “cut and paste” quotes from these chapters so beware, please read the verses before and after the “controversial” verse CAREFULLY. You’ll know why i am offering you this advice, i don’t want you to fall for the “isolation” verses idea where a verse is isolated from its previous and post verse. PEACE 🙂

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      2. I’ll bear that in mind when I get to those chapters. One of the reasons for reading the whole book is to get past the “quote out of context” problem.

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  3. “As the whole Qur’an is claimed to be a revelation from God, it seems strange that He put in anything ambiguous in the first place, especially as He then says (via the author) it’s wrong to try to understand it. It implies that readers should focus on the parts of the Qur’an that are clear and precise – they don’t need any interpretation – and ignore the ambiguous verses. Anyone who claims to know what they mean is second-guessing God. Doesn’t that put a lot of scholars out of business?”

    I’ve seen other interpretations that call the “ambiguous” things in the Qur’an as “allegorical”. Perhaps the ambiguous things are for people who want to seek a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are in the Qur’an, whereas for the simpler people (myself included), we should take away the clear message that we are to treat each other kindly, give to charity, practice forgiveness and patience, etc. Other things are not as important to live a happy life and “prep” for the next life.

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    1. Just to give me two cents on the last question in the quote: Doesn’t that put a lot of scholars out of business?” – Perhaps! If you have the ability to read and understand the words, why should you let anyone else tell you what it means when you take away some of the clear words in the Qur’an? The scholars can analyze the ambiguous.

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      1. This important verse starts by saying that there are verses that are precise in meaning and others that are ambiguous. It then goes on to say about the ambiguous verses “none knows its interpretation save God while those deeply rooted in knowledge say: ‘We believe in it. All is from our Lord'”. By definition, this verse itself is one of the “precise in meaning” ones. And it clearly means that some verses have a clear and obvious meaning, and the ambiguous ones also have a meaning but that is only known to God. Those “deeply rooted in knowledge” don’t try to interpret the ambiguous verses but simply say “We believe in it.” So that’s the wise thing to do. It’s an injunction against interpretation.

        That fits with the whole purpose of the verse, which he states clearly is to stop people causing trouble by arguing about interpretation of ambiguity. The message seems to be: either a verse is obviously clear, or you have to accept that it’s ambiguous, only God knows what it means, so stop trying to work it out.

        Sadly, it’s an argument for literalism.

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