MOVING BEYOND ISLAM’S “MIXED SIGNALS”

MOVING BEYOND ISLAM’S “MIXED SIGNALS”
Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D. (Board Member,MCA)
Author of Islam: A Relgion of Peace, President,Islamic institute,Honolulu
With the trials of Major Nidal Hasan and Dzokhar Tsarnaev fresh in people’s minds, the question whether Islam is a religion of peace troubles many, exacerbated by opposite signals from Muslim hawks and doves. For example, while the Islamic Society of North America quotes several Qur’anic verses to underscore Islam as religion of peace, Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, former Saudi chief justice, quotes several other Qur’anic verses to incite Muslims to fight non-Muslims continuously. Since both quote the Qur’an, neither accuses the other of being “un-Islamic”. However, with the Sheikh’s article, “The Call to Jihad in the Qur’an”, embellishing Al-Hilali and Khan’s commonly-available translation of the Qur’an (1996) and also being on the Internet, the religion’s hawks probably gain a steady stream of recruits for “violent jihad”, exemplified by the Taliban.
What accounts for such “mixed signals” in the Qur’an? While speculative, this is what I have been able to gather:
The Divine revelations the illiterate Muhammad received over 23 years were not consolidated into a book while he lived. Thus, caliph Abu Bakr, on suggestion from Umar (later, the second caliph), commissioned Zaid bin Thabit – a companion of the prophet and a scholar — to collect these verses from various individuals who had periodically transcribed these for the prophet, and to consolidate them in one volume. Zaid reports collecting some 6,200 verses from about 20 individuals. We can imagine the herculean task Zaid must have faced in trying to decide the order of placement as different verses, transcribed by different individuals, were written “on the leafless stalks of the date palm tree, and on pieces of leather, skins and stone”, and apparently without dates or chronological ordering . We do not know the procedure he and Uthman (later, the third caliph) employed to decide verse placement in the Qur’an. While some believe the prophet had outlined the placement of verses before his death, the following hadith throws some light on the subject: “When verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the prophet, he called someone to write them down for him said to him: “(1) Put this in the surah in which such and such has been mentioned . . . (2) (Surah 8) al-Anfal was the first surah revealed in Medina and (Surah 9) al-Bara’ah was the last, and its contents were similar to those of al-Anfal. I, therefore, thought that it was part of al-Anfal. Hence I put them in the category of the seven lengthy surahs, and I did not write ‘In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, there Merciful’ between them (Abu Dawood 310).
So, there is adequate reason to believe that the prophet may not have provided instructions on the placement of all verses. The challenge Muslims face, therefore, is not with the Divine guidance Muhammad received, but with its non-chronological arrangement in the Qur’an. For example: (1) while verse 5.5 permits Muslims to eat and intermarry with Jews and Christians (“People of the Book”), verse 5.51 forbids them from befriending Jews and Christians; and (2) although in verses 85.21-22, the Qur’an describes itself as Tablet preserved (meaning all verses are obligatory), in verse 2.106 it clarifies that later guidance supersedes earlier guidance. Considering such alternatives as “Divine options”, therefore, individuals often choose whichever guidance supports their view. So, even if the prophet had instructed the ordering of verses, we are still faced with this challenge. While some individuals acknowledge these mixed signals and suggest that verses selected at any time should depend upon the context of each situation, the challenge with this view is that it does not tell us whether Muslims should currently follow verse 5.5 or 5.51
To seek resolution, I separated Qur’anic guidance into two:
(a) Spiritual: Mostly revealed in Mecca during Muhammad’s first thirteen years as prophet (610-622 CE), this expounds on God’s attributes and wonders of creation and asks humans to reflect on their role as God’s stewards on Earth. Remaining unchanged throughout Muhammad’s prophethood, the Tablet preserved categorization probably refers to spiritual guidance.
(b) Temporal: Mostly revealed after Muhammad moved to Medina (622 CE), this covers everyday topics such as family life, commerce, and relations with non-Muslims. From an initial reactive posture when Muhammad was vulnerable, this evolved and, by the time he died, became proactive. Thus the clarification later guidance supersedes earlier guidance, probably applies here.
I found the chronology on many verses in Ibn Ishaq’s book, written within 150 years of Muhammad’s death and translated by Guillaume as The Life of Muhammad (1955). I learned, for example, that verse 5.51 was revealed shortly after Muhammad moved from Mecca to Medina (622 CE). Since this made some Medinites unhappy, verse 5.51 advised caution. And from other sources, I learned that verse 5.5 was revealed a decade later, after Muhammad had neutralized opposition. Thus, verse 5.5 superseded 5.51 – or peace superseded war. Similarly, with forgiveness superseding punishment, compassion superseding intolerance, and gender equality superseding misogyny, Islam became a “perfected” religion (verse 5.3) shortly before Muhammad died (632 CE).
Regardless of Hasan’s and Tsarnaev’s trials, therefore, “perfected” Islam should not be on trial. But, this should trigger jihad among Muslims to help unravel the Qur’an’s other “mixed signals”.
Not knowing the chronology of revelations, past generations simply chose verses that supported their view. Now, Muslims will do well to revisit this concept objectively. We might then see an end to questionable acts of zealots who look forward to eternal rewards for their violent actions based on superseded verses. They might discover these rewards actually lie in peaceful pursuits instead.
A concerted educational program encouraging individuals to consider how the “us versus them” passages in their sacred text could be replaced with “all of us in it together” passages, might help followers of several religions realize the common spiritual theme that runs across many religions – thereby rendering religious terrorism and war on terrorism — irrelevant.

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