DILEMMA FOR MUSLIMS: FOLLOW THE QUR’AN EPISODICALLY OR CHRONOLOGICALLY?

by Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D. President, Pacific Institute for Islamic Studies, Honolulu

SUMMARY

Some Muslims become radicalized because they follow superseded Qur’anic verses instead of the superseding verses. If this can be corrected, most of the confusion and the resulting radicalization could end quickly. This needs understanding the chronology of Qur’anic revelations and contextualizing their meanings where necessary.

Many more Qur’anic verses promote violence than peace. Thus, non-Muslims cannot be faulted for concluding that Islam is not a religion of peace, especially when the actions of some extremist Muslims continue to confirm this perception. Starting as a spiritual movement when Muhammad lived in Medina (610-622 CE), Islam evolved into a fighting force after the prophet moved to Medina and confronted enemies on all sides. It was only in his 10th year in Medina (631-32 CE) – after many tribes and nations had accepted his message — that the Qur’an adopted a peaceful posture and declared that all its earlier guidance (of war) was superseded by its new message (of peace). However, since extremist Muslims continue to follow superseded Qur’anic verses, the task before the Muslim majority is to educate them that it was only in the last revelation to Muhammad (verses 5.3 and 5.5) that the Qur’an gave the name Islam (peace) to the religion he preached.

INTRODUCTION

While a mesmerized Muslim minority looks forward to being rewarded with “vestal virgins” in Paradise for killing “infidels” – just as they did on Palm Sunday in Cairo — and spreading Islam violently or dying in this jihad, a perplexed and silent Muslim majority bemoans this helplessly. An unfortunate consequence of the illiterate prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE) dying without leaving a consolidated written record of the Divine guidance he reportedly received (Ahmed, 3), the scant information in the Muslim holy book Quran on the context and chronology of revelations empowers Muslim hawks and doves to follow opposite signals with equal conviction. Thus, e.g., while doves follow Qur’anic verses 5.3 and 5.5 permitting them to eat and intermarry with Jews and Christians (“People of the Book”) (Ahmed, 43), hawks follow verse 5.51 commanding Muslims to not trust Jews and Christians (Ahmed, 45). And, although verse 2.106 clarifies that later guidance superseded earlier guidance, trying to identify the “later guidance” on many issues remains elusive as the Qur’an’s 6,200+ verses are not arranged chronologically. Verse 2.106 also runs counter to general Muslim belief that the Qur’an is a “perfect” document, with all verses to be followed unquestioningly.

A product of the 622-632 CE decade when Muhammad lived in Medina and was engaged in 100 military encounters, these violence-inspiring verses guided him on how to respond to those who opposed him. His steadfastness, conviction, and the unquestioned obedience of his followers bore fruit and the opposition gradually crumbled. After several tribes and countries responded positively to his invitation to join his religion (Ibn Ishaq, pp 609-688), the Qur’an adopted a conciliatory posture toward non-Muslims, leading to the following – and final — revelation, only weeks before Muhammad died, in 632 CE:

. . . . This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion.. . . . This day are (all) things good and pure made lawful unto you. The food of the People of the Book is lawful unto you and yours is lawful unto them. (Lawful unto you in marriage) are (not only) chaste women who are believers, but chaste women among the People of the Book, revealed before your time, - when you give them their due dowers, and desire chastity, not lewdness, nor secret intrigues . . . . (portions of verse 5.3 and 5.5). (“People of the Book” refers to all people who believe in God and follow a righteous life).

Shortly thereafter, the prophet sent the following assurance to the Christian kings of Himyar (Ibn Ishaq p 643; Tabari p 9/75):

Hadith*: If a Jew or Christian becomes a Muslim, he is a believer with his own rights and obligations. He who holds fast to his religion, Jew or Christian, is not to be turned (“seduced”) from it. He must pay the poll tax – for every adult, male or female, free or slave, one full dinar calculated on the valuation of the Ma’fir or its equivalent in clothes. He who pays that to God’s apostle has the guarantee of God and His apostle, and he who withholds it, is the enemy of God and His apostle. (*All hadith quoted in this article are from www.alim.org).

And probably shortly thereafter, Muhammad apparently revised his policy further toward inclusiveness by declaring:

No tithes are to be levied on Christians and Jews (hadith Abu Dawood 1328).

Introspection:

Verses 5.3 and 5.5 and the above two hadith were a significant departure in the prophet’s relations with non-Muslims as, until then, he was guided by reactionary verses such as:

O you who believe! Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily Allah guides not a people unjust. (verse 5.51).

Possibly anticipating the confusion that would be caused by the presence of opposing messages within the Qur’an without explanation (such as verses 5.3 and 5.5 on the one hand and verse 5.51, on the other), the Qur’an clarified:

None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Don’t you know that Allah has power over all things? (verse 2.106).

So, the earlier guidance on any subject was to be replaced by the later guidance. For this to be implemented effectively, however, one must know the chronology of revelations. And this information is generally not available.

The challenge

Thus, Muslims face two major challenges.

1. Not knowing the chronology of revelations: Since the Qur’an is not arranged chronologically, it is not often possible to ascertain which guidance on any subject came “later”. Thus, in some minds, verse 5.51 continues to be valid and to be followed. They also follow other “reactive” verses such as:

But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever you find them; and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war). But if they repent and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. (verse 9.5).

The “forbidden months” refers to the pre-Islamic practice (which Muslims continued) of not fighting during specific months of their lunar calendar to enable free flow of people and goods.

2. Not believing in abrogation of verses: Some Muslims believe the Qur’an is “perfect”, with nothing from it being abrogated. They base this belief on the following verse:

Nay, this is a Glorious Qur’an, (inscribed) in a Tablet Preserved! (verse 85.21-22).

Thus, they believe that verse 2.106 refers to the Qur’an superseding earlier messages to Moses and Jesus, and not to verses within the Qur’an. But, the following hadith confirms that Muhammad applied this verse to Qur’anic revelations as well:

Hadith: During prayers, the prophet . . . inadvertently omitted some verses. Later, a man said, “Apostle of Allah, you omitted such-and-such verse”. The Apostle asked, “Why did you not remind me of it”? The man said, “I thought that it was repealed.” (hadith Abu Dawood 349).

Understanding the challenge

Before we grope for a solution, we should understand what caused the problem:

Whenever the illiterate Muhammad received a new revelation, he would ask one of his literate followers to transcribe it (hadith Bukhari 9.301). There were about 65 such individuals who transcribed for Muhammad at different times. Sometimes, an individual might possibly transcribe for several days; at other times, he might be gone on travel for several days. Thus, there was no regularity in the scheduling of different transcribers. Additionally, in the absence of any central “verse collecting agency”, each transcriber maintained his own collection, adding to it subsequently as he was called later to transcribe. The writing materials used also varied and included dried stalks of the date palm tree, animal hides, and stones (hadith Bukhari 9.301). After Muhammad died, caliph Abu Bakr had these collected and compiled into a book. Imagine the task of collecting 6,200 verses, transcribed on assorted materials, from transcribers probably living in different places, and transporting them to wherever Zaid stored them for compilation. It is also possible that Zaid would collect verses from one compiler, put them in the Qur’an, and then collect these from another compiler. Depending upon how many pieces of dried leaf stalks, hides, and stones could be loaded onto a camel, it would have taken anywhere between 6 to 60 trips of one camel to transport these 6,200 verses from the transcriber’s homes to wherever Zaid unloaded these for his compilation. We, thus, have a book of 6,000+ verses, apparently in no chronological order. However, these verses are in beautiful classical Arabic (which is due to these verses’ inherent qualities) which, coming from the lips of an illiterate “rustic” person, is considered a “miracle” by itself.

Groping for a solution

The difficulty in finding hadith discussing the chronology of verses also poses a serious challenge. The late Prof. Fazlur Rahman alluded to this in his last book “Islam”. And the contemporary Muslim scholar Mohammad Hashim Kamali suggests the following innovative strategy to by-pass any blasphemy charge.

“We recite (in the Qur’an) the abrogated (superseded) verses but only follow the “abrogatee” (superseding) verses.

Even if we succeed in identifying the chronology of 10% verses, we will be able to establish that peace superseded war, inclusiveness superseded exclusiveness, forgiveness superseded punishment, philogeny superseded misogyny, and modest dressing superseded veiling. Muslims will then realize that the “final Islam” is compassionate and promotes interfaith harmony. Indeed, it can serve as an interfaith harmony model for others.

Proposed actions

To help us get there, here are some suggested actions:

1. Organize conferences to: (a) discuss the context and chronology of revelations; (b) distinguish between superseded and superseding verses; and (c) consider actions to disseminate these findings. They should also generate a da’wah (invitation) to all Muslims to follow the final path promoted by Islam: of Islam (peace, verses 5.3 and 5.5).

2. The United Nations and individual countries should consider how best to deal with organizations and individuals inciting hatred on religious grounds.

3. Determine the chronology of important hadith. While difficult, any success will be well worthwhile.

4. Develop curriculum explaining the implications of the final guidance to Muhammad and mandate this for all schools, including madrassahs.

5. Educate extremists that killing “infidels” and Muslims disagreeing with their approach and maltreating non-Muslim women might not earn them “vestal virgins”; it might generate the opposite action instead.

Role Models

Muslims Sufis such as those who took Islam peacefully to China and Southeast Asia, where no Muslim army has ever set foot, can serve as excellent role models. Because of their broad mindedness and compassion, they are revered by followers of all religions, as demonstrated by the thousands of devotees of various faiths visiting their mausoleums in several countries. Their message, devoid of “mixed signals”, is the blueprint that Muslims should cherish, follow, and spread. A recent role model would be the late Indian holy man, Sai Baba, who was venerated by followers of all religions for his harmonious interfaith thinking and actions. And while he never revealed his religious upbringing, the fact that he was buried and not cremated suggests his Islamic background.

Final Thoughts

In 2015, extremist Muslims reportedly killed 1,000+ people in Pakistan and injured another 1,500 (Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies). And while the anguish to the victims’ loved ones can only be guessed, the “elation” to the killers’ loved ones is probably great, convinced that their “martyrs” are now being comforted by vestal virgins; indeed, many relatives of these individuals probably await their turn to befriend these heavenly maidens.

While organizations such as the Islamic Society of North America bemoan the Islamophobia being generated due to extremist misdeeds, it is equally important that Muslims avoid Muslimiphilia, which I define as Muslims supporting other Muslims simply because of their religion, in spite of their possible “un-Islamic” actions.

It might take decades to rectify the damage already done to Islam’s name by extremists. Thus, the earlier Muslims launch the proposed da’wah the earlier might they reach their destination. And what can be a better way to initiate this da’wah than by challenging extremists on their own turf: on the basis of teachings of the religion they claim to follow?

But this should be considered a “mutual-learning” exercise in which the only “winner” will be Islam.

REFERENCES

Ahmed, Saleem. 2008. Islam: Religion of Peace? (Honolulu: Moving Pen).

Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, 1989. The Holy Qur’an. (Brentwood: Amana).

Al-Tabari. ~ 900 CE. Tarikh al-rusul wa’l-muluk. Translated by the following individuals: Vol. VI, Montgomery Watt and M.V. Macdonald (1988); Vol. VII, M.V. Montgomery (1987); Vol. VIII, Michael Fishbein (1997); and Vol IX, Aziz Poonawala (1990). (Albany: State University of New York).

Ishaq, Ibn, ~ 800 CE. Seerat Rasool Allah. Translated by A. Gillaume (1955) as Life of Muhammad. (Karachi: Oxford University Press).

Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. 1991. Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. 1991. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society.

Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies. 2016. Pakistan Security Report, 2015. (Islamabad).

Leave a Reply

 

Recent Posts

Recent Comments

Archives

issues of america

Blog Traffic

Pages

Pages|Hits |Unique

  • Last 24 hours: 400
  • Last 7 days: 2,088
  • Last 30 days: 7,985
  • Online now: 1
Traffic Counter