He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Fair Questions: What does the Qur'an say about unbelievers, Jews, and Christians?

Listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

There are many references to unbelievers (sometimes rendered as infidels) in the Qur'an, and because some of them are in the same passages as the passages about Jesus or immediately following those passages, I would like to examine those first as an extension of my previous work on what the Qur'an says about Jesus.

Also, in previous passages it was made clear that Christians are understood to be unbelievers (kafir in Arabic) and Jews are understood to be covenant-breakers.  For that reason, I will begin where I left off in the "House of Imran" surah, with the passage immediately following the laying of God's curse upon the unbelievers who lie about God.

Say: 'People of the Book!  Come now to a word
common between us and you, that we serve
none but God, and that we associate not
aught with Him, and do not some of us take
others as Lords, apart from God.' And if
they turn their backs, say: 'Bear witness that
     we are Muslims.'

People of the Book!  Why do you dispute
concerning Abraham?  The Torah was not sent
down, neither the Gospel, but after him.  What,
     have you no reason?
Ha, you are the ones who dispute on what you
know; why then dispute you touching a matter
of which you know not anything?  God knows,
     and you know not.
No; Abraham in truth was not a Jew,
neither a Christian; but he was a Muslim
and one pure of faith; certainly he was never
     of the idolaters.
Surely the people standing closest to Abraham
are those who followed him, and this Prophet,
and those who believe, and God is the Protector
     of the believers.

There is a party of the People of the Book
yearn to make you go astray; yet none
they make to stray, except themselves, but
     they are not aware.
People of the Book!  Why do you disbelieve
in God's signs, which you yourselves witness?
People of the Book!  Why do you confound
the truth with vanity, and conceal the truth
     and that wittingly?

We see in this Quranic passage that there is a reiteration of the idea that Christians and Jews are lying about God, and doing so knowingly, that they disbelieve in God's clear signs.  We also see a very common assertion that the Prophets of old were actually Muslims and that Islam is a return to the pure monotheism of Abraham (Ibrāhīm in Arabic).

Those who kept to the Abrahamic monotheism or had returned to it were known as reverts (Ḥanīf in Arabic), and were generally respected by the early Islamic community for maintaining the ancient truth which had been corrupted by the Christians and the Jews.  Though the Christians and Jews feature frequently among those considered to be unbelievers, they aren't the only ones singled out.

In the surah called "The Cow" (Al-Baqara in Arabic), there's another group that gets mentioned during an admonition that follows a discourse about Moses and the Israelites who followed him out of Egypt and through the desert.  But I will begin with the first passages of that surah, "The Cow":

In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate

  That is the Book, wherein is no doubt,
     a guidance to the godfearing
who believe in the Unseen, and perform the prayer,
and expend of what We have provided them;
who believe in what has been sent down to thee
   and what has been sent down before thee,
     and have faith in the Hereafter;
  those are guidance from their Lord,
     those are the ones who prosper.

As for the unbelievers, alike it is to them
whether thou hast warned them or hast not warned them,
     they do not believe.
God has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing,
     and on their eyes is a covering,
and there awaits them a mighty chastisement.

     And some men there are who say,
  'We believe in God and the Last Day';
     but they are not believers.
  They would trick God and the believers,
     and only themselves they deceive,
         and they are not aware.
     In their hearts is a sickness,
     and God has increased their sickness,
and there awaits them a painful chastisement
        for that they have cried lies.
  When it is said to them, 'Do not corruption in the land',
  they say, 'We are the only ones that put things right.'
     Truly, they are the workers of corruption
         but they are not aware.
When it is said to them, 'Believe as the people believe',
they say, 'Shall we believe, as fools believe?'
     Truly, they are the foolish ones,
        but they do not know.
When they meet those who believe, they say, 'We believe';
but when they go privily to their Satans, they say,
  'We are with you; we were only mocking.'
  God shall mock them, and shall lead them on
  blindly wandering in their insolence.
  Those are they that have bought error
     at the price of guidance,
  and their commerce has not profited them,
     and they are not right-guided.

"The Cow" is the first surah in the Qur'an after the opening prayer, and it starts with God speaking of believers and unbelievers, echoing some things that come up in other passages of the Qur'an about unbelievers being punished harshly.

In this surah, the Quranic narrative depicts a God who makes unbelievers remain in their belief, somewhat reminiscent of passages in the Tanakh regarding God hardening Pharaoh's heart.  The first set of unbelievers described in this passage are those claim to be believers, but are deluded about their being true believers and are lying about God.

Also, these unbelievers are depicted as publicly professing belief while privately mocking the true belief in the One God, and mocking those who submit to God alone (Muslims) as fools.

Shortly after in the surah "The Cow" it is made clear what awaits those who are unbelievers and the doubters.

And if you are in doubt concerning that We have
sent down on Our servant, then bring a sura
like it, and call your witnesses, apart from
     God, if you are truthful.
And if you do not--and you will not--then
fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones,
     prepared for unbelievers. 

Give thou good tidings to those who believe
and do deeds of righteousness, that for them
await gardens underneath which rivers flow;
whensoever they are provided with fruits therefrom
they shall say, 'This is that wherewithal
we were provided before'; and there
for them shall be spouses purified; therein
     they shall dwell forever.

As mentioned previously, the Fire is another term for Jahannam, the Islamic word for Hell.  That's where the unbelievers will be going, but the believers have a Paradise prepared for them, and within it they will have married love indefinitely and a restoration of the rich bounty of the Garden of Eden.

This paradise is referenced many times in the Qur'an, and the phrases used often use the word Garden in them or simply refer to them as The Garden (Al-Jannah in Arabic).  Shortly after this passage in "The Cow" surah, the topic shifts to the Garden of Eden and Adam's sin after being tempted by Satan.

And We said, 'Adam, dwell thou, and thy wife,
in the Garden, and eat thereof easefully
where you desire; but draw not nigh this tree,
     lest you be evildoers.'
Then Satan caused them to slip therefrom
and brought them out of that they were in;
and We said, 'Get you all down, each
of you an enemy of each; and in
the earth a sojourn shall be yours, and
     enjoyment for a time.
Thereafter Adam received certain words
from his Lord, and He turned towards him;
truly he turns, and is All-compassionate.
We said, 'Get you down out of it, all together;
yet there shall come to you guidance from Me,
and whosoever follows My guidance,
no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.
As for the unbelievers who cry lies to Our signs,
those shall be inhabitants of the Fire,
     therein dwelling forever.'

Children of Israel, remember My blessing
wherewith I blessed you, and fulfil My Covenant
and I shall fulfil your covenant; and have awe of Me.
And believe in that I have sent down, confirming
that which is with you, and be not the first
to disbelieve in it.  And sell not My signs
for a little price; and fear you Me.
And do not confound the truth with vanity,
and do not conceal the truth wittingly.
And perform the prayer, and pay the alms,
and bow with those that bow.  Will you bid
others to piety, and forget yourselves
while you recite the Book?  Do you not understand?
Seek you help in patience and prayer,
for grievous it is, save to the humble
who reckon that they shall meet their Lord
and that unto Him they are returning.

Children of Israel, remember My blessing
wherewith I blessed you, and that I
have preferred you above all beings;
and beware of a day when no soul for another
shall give satisfaction, and no intercession
shall be accepted from it, nor any counterpoise
be taken, neither shall they be helped.

The Quranic narrative about the loss of the Garden of Eden to which faithful Mulims will be restored at the end of all things is followed by a series of admonitions to the Jews that recognizes their status as God's chosen people and exhorts them to not break their covenant with God.  In other parts of the Qur'an, it is made very clear that the Jews have indeed broken the covenant and that this will have serious consequences for them.

The surah "The Cow" continues with the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the Golden Calf idol, the manna and quails, and Moses striking the rock to bring forth water because of their complaints.  This is followed by another passage about the Jews and others.

And abasement and poverty were pitched upon them,
and they were laden with the burden of God's anger;
that, because they had disbelieved the signs of God
and slain the prophets unrightfully; that,
because they disobeyed, and were transgressors.
Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry,
and the Christians, and those Sabaeans,
whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works
righteousness--their wage awaits them with their Lord,
and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.

When the Qur'an mentions the Sabaeans or Sabians, it could be referring to a variety of different religious groups, and it's difficult to know for sure which group (or set of religious groups) it would mean.  They could have been Gnostics of some stripe or members of another Abrahamic faith.

What is more obvious is that the Quranic narratives repeatedly mention the disobedience of the Jews and their breaking of the covenant and killing of the prophets.  At the same time, it seems that the Qur'an is indicating that righteous people among the Jews, Christians, and Sabians have a reward awaiting them from God.

But that's not a wholehearted endorsement of those religious groups by any stretch of the imagination.  In the surah "The Table" (Al-Ma'ida in Arabic), Muslims are admonished:

O believers, take not Jews and Christians
as friends; they are friends of each other.
Whoso of you makes them his friends
is one of them.  God guides not the people
     of the evildoers.
Yet thou seest those in whose hearts is sickness
vying with one another to come to them,
saying, 'We fear lest a turn of fortune
should smite us.'  But it may be that God
will bring the victory, or some commandment
from Him, and then they will find themselves,
for that they kept secret within them,
and the believers will say, 'What, are these
the ones who swore by God most earnest oaths
that they were with you?  Their works have failed;
     now they are the losers.
O believers, whosoever of you turns
from his religion, God will assuredly
bring a people He loves, and who love Him,
humble toward the believers, disdainful
towards the unbelievers, men who struggle
in the path of God, not fearing the reproach
of any reproacher.  That is God's bounty;
He gives it unto whom He will; and God is
     All-embracing, All-knowing.
Your friend is only God, and His Messenger,
and the believers who perform the prayer
and pay the alms, and bow them down.
Whoso makes God his friend, and His Messenger,
and the believers--the party of God,
     they are the victors.
O believers, take not as your friends those
of them, who were given the Book before you,
and the unbelievers, who take your religion
in mockery and as a sport; that is
because they are a people who have
     no understanding.

This passage in "The Table" surah continues on with an extended discourse about the Jews, and it might, at least in part, explain why there is a large portion of the Islamic world which believes that most Jews are evildoers.  There are obviously political reasons for anti-semitism in the Islamic world as well; it's not purely a matter of appeals to the Qur'an.

But it's still good to know what the Qur'an says about Jews and People of the Book more generally:

The Jews have said, 'God's hand is fettered.'
Fettered are their hands, and they are cursed
for what they have said.  Nay, but His hands
are outspread; He expends how He will.
And what has been sent down to thee from
thy Lord will surely increase many of them
in insolence and unbelief; and We have cast
between them enmity and hatred, till the Day
of Resurrection.  As often as they light
a fire for war, God will extinguish it.
They hasten about the earth, to do
corruption there; and God loves not the
     workers of corruption.
But had the People of the Book believed
and been godfearing, We would have acquitted
them of their evil deeds, and admitted them
to Gardens of Bliss.  Had they performed
the Torah and the Gospel, and what was
sent down to them from their Lord, they would
have eaten both what was above them, and
what was beneath their feet.  Some of them are
a just nation; but many of them--evil are
     the things they do.

This passage in "The Table" surah indicates that there is a reason for God punishing the People of the Book by increasing their unbelief, and the reason is their failure to follow the Torah and the Gospel (Al-Injil in Arabic) that God gave them as guidance.

The last part of this passage states that some of the People of the Book are righteous, and also that many of them are evildoers.  This may be a reflection of the fact that the Prophet Muhammad had both good relationships with some groups of Jews and quite literally embattled relationships with other groups of Jews.

There are further references to unbelievers, Sabians, and Christians, and Jews in the surah, "The Pilgrimage" (Al-Hajj in Arabic).  As in many passages in the Qur'an there is a strong emphasis on the quite different outcomes from believers and unbelievers.

God shall surely admit those who believe
and do righteous deeds into gardens
underneath which rivers flow; surely God does
     that He desires.

Whosoever thinks God will not help him
in the present world and the world to come,
let him stretch up a rope to heaven,
then let him sever it, and behold
whether his guile does away with what
     enrages him.

Even so We have sent it down as signs,
clear signs, and for that God guides
     whom He desires.
Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry,
the Sabaeans, the Christians, the Magians
and the idolaters--God shall distinguish
between them on the Day of Resurrection;
assuredly God is witness
     over everything.
Hast thou not seen how to God bow all who are in the heavens
     and all who are in earth,
the sun and the moon, the stars and the mountains,
     the trees and the beasts,
and many of mankind?  And many merit the chastisement;
     and whom God abases,
there is none to honour him.  God does whatsoever He will.

These are two disputants who have disputed
concerning their Lord.  As for the unbelievers,
for them garments of fire shall be cut,
and there shall be poured over their heads
     boiling water
whereby whatsoever is in their bellies
and their skins shall be melted; for them await
     hooked iron rods;
as often as they desire in their anguish
to come forth from it, they shall be restored
into it, and: 'Taste the chastisement
     of the burning!'

The visceral and graphic descriptions of the tortures of Jahannam remind me somewhat of one of the Buddha's discourses and various artistic depictions of hell dimensions in Buddhism.  As before, unbelievers, Christians, and Jews are mentioned in the same passages, making it difficult to deny that there is a meaningful connection between the fate of unbelievers and the People of the Book.

Islamic scholars have differing views about whether or not Christians and Jews are unbelievers.  There is no perfect consensus as to the answer to that question, though Christians and Jews have often been treated more leniently than other religious groups by Muslims who conquered their lands.

And this lack of consensus is a reflection of the various Quranic narratives that speak of Jews and Christians in sometimes more positive and sometimes quite negative terms, in one passage suggesting that they will be rewarded by God for their righteousness and belief, and in another suggesting that they are evildoers or unbelievers whose fate is the Fire.

Yet there are some things that are very clear in the Qur'an: unbelievers are destined for a torturous Hell, Jews are covenant-breakers and murderers of the holy prophets (many of whom are evildoers), and Christians who claim that Jesus is the Son God are unbelievers (which the overwhelming majority of them).  It's also clear that Muslims are called by God to befriend their fellow Muslims and avoid falling in with Christians and Jews who might cause them to stray from Islam.

These passages may be interpreted in various ways, through contextualization and cross-referencing the passages with various hadith, for example, because there really isn't a central magisterium that can adjudicate the different interpretations.  And as with most religious texts, the interpretation is usually made in light of our existing beliefs about morality and politics, so it's inevitable that some Muslims will prefer to emphasize the more negative passages about unbelievers, Christians, and Jews while other Muslims would prefer to emphasize other passages.

*     *     *

These are not the only references to unbelievers in the Qur'an, and if you want more information about those references and how unbelievers are viewed in Islam, I recommend both reading the Qur'an for yourself and reading the thoughts of Islamic commentators on it (from multiple interpretive traditions).

Note:  The above image is a Persian painting of Mary and the infant Jesus.

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