Q. This is a great website, I just have a few questions. The first is regarding the following quotation from the Holy Qur’an: "Those who believe, and the Jews and the Christians, and the Sabians, any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve." (Al-Baqara (The Cow), 2:62). (5:69 in the Holy Qur’an also repeats this statement). Who exactly are the "Sabians"? Depending on the translation, it is either “Sabean” or “Sabian”. I read in one book that the Sabians were those who practiced Eastern Religions (i.e. Buddhism and Hinduism). Along this premise, I would conclude that the Holy Qur’an says that all who practice good deeds as inspired by their religions shall be rewarded in the afterlife.  Is this a reasonable interpretation?

This question is important to me because my boyfriend is Muslim. Although I very much respect Islam, I am not Muslim. I believe that there are many ways to be a good person, and that each person must choose the spiritual path that best helps her/him achieve that goal. I love my Sunni Muslim boyfriend very much, and his faith is very important to him. Consequently, I am trying very, very hard to understand exactly what Muslims believe and why. My boyfriend cannot answer all of my questions, and consequently encouraged me to read the Holy Qur’an to find my answers to these questions.  However, after reading the Holy Qur’an, I became more perplexed, because some of the passages seem conflicting.  The above passage from the Holy Qur’an portrays a very tolerant stance that good people who work righteousness will be rewarded, even those who are not Muslim.  Many other passages obviously promote very positive things: good will, righteousness, religious tolerance..., etc.

[5:85] “Therefore Allah rewarded them on account of what they said, with gardens in which rivers flow to abide in them; and this is the reward of those who do good (to others)."

[4:84] "Fight then in Allah's way; this is not imposed on you except in relation to yourself, and rouse the believers to ardor, maybe Allah will restrain the fighting of those who disbelieve and Allah is strongest in prowess and strongest to give an exemplary punishment."

This to me seems to mean that religion is a personal matter.  It is a personal struggle for the individual to be righteous, and in the end it is only God who decides who is correct.  Those who don't respect others or punish others for their differing religions are in essence, not following their own religions.

[4:85] Whoever joins himself (to another) in a good cause shall have a share of it, and whoever joins himself (to another) in an evil cause shall have the responsibility of it, and Allah controls all things.

Seems like great advice to me to make people take the responsibility for their own actions! There is also a very female friendly quote. “Honor the mothers who bore you, God is watching over you.” [4:1]

Most Muslims believe that the Holy Qur’an is God's word free of human fault. Nonetheless, this idea becomes enigmatic to me when some ideas are blatantly contradictory. Troubling to me is the Qur’an discourages Muslims from taking Jews or Christians as friends (religious prejudice), allows for a man to beat his wife (domestic violence), and allows for believers to slay “non-believers”. 

[5:51] O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.

[4:34] "Men are in charge of women, because Allah has made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah has guarded. As for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is ever High Exalted, Great." (Pickthall's version of the Qur’an, 4:34)

I thought, perhaps, it was a “bad translation”, so I consulted 5 others, which all said the same thing using scourging or beating of their wives as a last punishment.

[8:65] “O Prophet! Urge the believers to war; if there are twenty patient ones of you they shall overcome two hundred...”

[9:29] “Fight against those who believe not in Allah, nor in the Last Day, nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger (Muhammad) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (Islam) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians) until they pay the jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

This [9:29] baffles me. Since Allah is everyone’s God, those who believe in Her, even if they are not Muslim, should have no fear, as stated in the Qur’an many times.  Nonetheless, according to this passage, those who do not take Islam as their religion (regardless of their good deeds) will be punished. They will be punished not by God, who according to the Holy Qur’an, is the only One who can truly judge, but by Muslims. Jizyah, the special high tax to be paid only by Jews or Christians who do not want to renounce their religion and convert to Islam is still practiced today in much of the Muslim world. Why? I thought that it was forbidden for Muslims to force their religion on others? What happened to religious tolerance? Violence and inequality are the very things that the Qur’an also condemned.  How are these passages that promote religious prejudice and violence consistent with the other passages that tell Muslims the virtues of good deeds, peace, and religious tolerance?  How is it that these conflicting messages can be focused into one religious belief?  I believe that the vast majority of Muslims do not pay much credit to such encouragement of violence or prejudice, even if some words in the Qur’an condone it.  From my personal experience, most Muslims are genuinely good people who respect other good people and believe, for the most part, in the good of humanity. But why then do most Muslims swear that every word in Holy Qur’an is undoubtedly the word of God?  Why doesn’t most contemporary Islamic philosophy still respect Islam’s lost tradition of independent thinking, ijtihad”? I would greatly appreciate your response to my questions.  I just want to understand.

A. I thank you for your questions, for they allow me to repeat mantras that many scholars of religion deem so vital. Before seeking to understand anything about any religion, we must take into consideration the temporal and spatial (read, geographic) settings of the scriptures of those religions, i.e., putting things into context. This will let us understand too that we cannot “read” things from centuries ago in today’s perception. The Qu’ran is an ORAL presentation, revealed to a man of the desert, addressing Muhammad’s contemporaries who KNEW what he was talking about, and did not need someone to interpret it for them. We must understand too that the exegetical works on the Qur’an were prepared long after Muhammad’s death by a people who were far from the Arabs he had known -- in terms of time obviously, and space -- for the bulk of works come out of Iraq, Egypt, etc., places where the desert culture and idiom of Muhammad would have been foreign. And these exegetes had imported traditions and political realities that often clothed Islam in a vestment that were alien and stifling. Next, we also have to know that NO RELIGION -- most of all any one of the big three -- has a monolithic interpretation, to be summarized by “what does Islam think?” or “what is Christianity” or “what is the Jewish position on the afterlife?”

The prime example of contextual importance lies in the answer to your first inquiry: you ask about the Sabeans. Now even a cursory look at the Qur’an would reveal that its message about God is that of uncompromising monotheism. Next, that the references of the Qur’an can only be that which Muhammad’s contemporaries would have understood -- for obviously, he could not be telling them things that were meaningless to them. And since he was dead set against polytheism, there was no way he could have vouchsafed any sect/cult/religion that practiced open association of partners with God. The Sabeans of the Qur’an therefore are to be regarded as monotheists. Are they still around? We don’t know who they were in the first place, because of all the exegeses I have surveyed; none seems truly reliable, once again, because they were prepared long after Muhammad’s death. I know that the general opinion is that the Sabeans were star worshippers, but the story behind this is one that mirrors sagacity and the relative tolerance of early Islamic rulers. According to the Qur’anic mandate, the Sabeans are entitled to heaven. The Islamic administration, notably in IRAQ rather than in Mecca or Medina, had to face the categorization of its tolerated minorities, and for the Christians and Jews it had no problem. But there were other groups as well. One of these groups comprised of star worshippers, and declared itself to be the Sabeans to which the Qur’an referred. The administration had to accept the statement at face value. And if it were argued that star worship would have logically excluded them from consideration as a monotheist group, then logic would also dictate that the Trinitarian Christians would also be denied recognition.

Rather, the Muslims wisely decided to lead the terms used by the Qur’an -- a Christian is a Christian no matter what his/her creed might be, and a Sabean is a person who claims to be as such -- and a Muslim was one who claimed to be such; one did not probe deeper than a confession of faith. In short then, to this point, we have no reliable identification as to who the original Sabeans were. It is unlikely that they were the Hindus or Buddhists. These would be considered by the latter part of the verse in question: “Who believe in God and the last day and do good deeds.” It may be argued that God belief is not a central tenet of mainstream Buddhism, but I would also argue that we have no evidence of either a recognized Buddhist or Hindu presence in the Arab peninsula of Muhammad’s time. You say you are trying hard to understand what Muslims believe. This brings into play one of the mantras I mentioned earlier, about no religion having a monolithic interpretation. I consider myself an observant Muslim, and for me that means that Jesus, like all other prophets before him, died a final death. I don’t believe that an antichrist will come towards the end of time. Yet many Muslims will disagree with me. I believe that we are not, as Muslims, supposed to say Muhammad is better than Moses, but many Muslims would disagree with me. Many Christians believe that Jesus was of virgin birth; others don’t. Many Jews believe that a Messiah -- a human person is yet to come -- others do not. I can only say that you look for what is common with your general faith outlook, and if you are a Christian, realize that there is no way that Islam can accept the contention that he is God’s son. Other than that, there is little difference between the two in terms of ethics, etc., since both are scions of the general Torah/Talmudic matrix.

On the issue of religion being a personal matter: as you know, there are two dimensions that we may attribute to religion; I think Robert Bella was the first who outlined these obvious things: Our relation to God (the vertical), and our relation to each other (the horizontal). The latter is part of religion for our ethics, how we interact with each other is predicated not only on what is best for us, but how God says it is supposed to be. In the vertical connection, we can take that as personal, and none has a right to mess with another person’s deeply held convictions about God and God’s being, etc. (which is why, despite the general Islamic dismissal of a Trinitarian Divinity as held by Christianity, the Qur’an, in realizing this is a matter of creed, leaves it to God and the last day, and recognizes Christians as “People of the Book”). But if religion is to affect our interaction with each other, there must be bodies that ensure such interaction is maintained, which is why we have Halakhah in Judaism, and Shariah in Islam. Christianity sought to do away with this, and the result was chaos, leading to “indulgences”, etc. It is true that humans have taken the Halakhah and Shariah to extremes, but the issue nonetheless, is that certain aspects of religion are NOT a matter of personal choice. As a citizen of Canada, I am expected to do certain things despite what my views of the leader may be; as an American today, I may or may not agree with the American presence in Iraq, but to be an American and commit acts of subversion against American troops would be a treasonable act, and the same goes for religion. Out of the cohesiveness that must exist in certain aspects, one cannot commit certain acts and claim freedom of personal interpretation.

Now we come to the allegation of contradictory verses in the Qur’an, a charge made famous by non-Muslims. This is impossible on two levels: logic, and to a lesser extent -- the argumentum e silentio. Here is Muhammad making certain claims, against a people who are not at all enthralled by his preaching, and who would leave no stone unturned to debunk him. Wouldn’t you agree that if they found evidence of contradiction, they would have laughed him out existence? Not only that, but the Qur’an dares them: Were this from other than God, they would have found much contradiction therein (Q4:82). And we have NO answer from them, i.e., the argumentum e silentio. One may contend that although the Qur’an does not report challenges, this does not mean that there was none. I agree, but for centuries, analysts of the Qur’an have pored over its structure, and one would have found some evidence of circumlocution, an attempted divergence on an issue, but there is none. Why would the Qu’ran, preached by a man obsessed with his people’s religious beliefs, not evidence this? Why would the followers of this man not say to him: “O Muhammad! Some people are saying that verse x contradicts verse y?”

You talk about the verses that honor women, and then that of wife beating as a “blatant contradiction.” You are certainly correct, if we view the verses in light of our MODERN sensibilities, and WITHOUT an understanding of the structure and message of the Qur’an, and without knowledge of the GENERAL religious outlook of the time. Let us take the last issue first; Muhammad’s society is influenced by three main religious structures: Arab polytheism, Judaism (in its various forms), and Christianity (in its various forms). All three of these religions say NOTHING in the scripture about wife beating, or give details about how marital discord is to be resolved (except in the case of divorce). Are we to assume there was no spousal abuse? A reading of the Talmud and of the early Church Fathers would indicate woman as a filthy vessel, as one who caused Adam to sin, as a thing of disdain. (See Naomi Graetz’ excellent article on the matter at http://www.utoronto.ca/wjudaism/journal/vol1n2/v1n2grae.htm). Here I just cite that in Biblical times, we have examples of women who were psychologically abused and an attitude that may have indicated that there was nothing wrong about physically abusing women. In Mishnaic and Talmudic times, there was no reference to battered women as a class. Indeed Judith Romney Wegner's book on the status of women in the Mishnaic period does not even have a footnote on this topic.

One might argue that the 'battered woman' as a class is a category that does not exist in modern times. There is the Halakhic category of "rebellious wife", who might have as a cause for her rebellion against her husband the fact that he beats her, but her status is determined by her rebellion against him, and not by what he does to her. She is the object, not the subject of the law. There were no verses about beating because it was normal. Islam recognizes wife beating as horrible, but knows that such a deeply ingrained practice cannot be abandoned overnight. It has to be done gradually, which is why the verse to which you refer has steps that are almost impossible to complete, the use of arbiters, the sleeping apart, in short to dissuade the practice, in the same vein as the Qur’an dares humans to fly to the farthest horizons of the universe (Q 55:33). This is known as the process of gradualism. To show the astuteness of this approach: Paul, in Galatians 3:28, says that in Jesus there is neither man nor woman, and a fine statement of equality it is. But the resulting chaos made him later state: in 1 Timothy 2-12 that he would not suffer a woman to raise her voice above that of her husband. Was Paul retracting? Was he contradicting himself? One may make an argument for this, but one may also state that Paul had realized that he had not used gradualism.

You also touch on the issue of Muslims not taking Jews and Christians as friends. Here again, that belief is logically, scripturally, and linguistically incorrect. In the Qur’an, a wife is referred to as one in whom a spouse finds mawadda (love) and tranquility (sakina). For the full import of the latter term, ask any Rabbi to explain the term “shekinah” and you will see the cognate connotation in a manner that truly transcends the ability of the written word. And the wife is referred to as a garment for the husband, as the husband is for her.(Q 2:187) In short, she is more than just a friend. And such a wife can be a Christian or a Jew, in the most minimalist of the Qur’anic verse rendering. Now, how can such a person NOT be a friend? And NONE has said that there is contradiction in the verses. Let us look at it linguistically. What is the meaning of awliya? It is the plural of wali, denoting someone who is entrusted to be your representative, someone you put in charge of your affairs because you trust that person. The verse has to be put into context: many Christians and Jews were in positions of power and were using such positions to undermine the wellbeing of those of their tribe who were Muslims. Note that the verse goes on to say WHY the exhortation to NOT take Jews and Christians as PROTECTORS and REPRESENTATIVES: because they are PROTECTORS of each other, i.e., the verse is to be understood in a political context of the time, wherein many Jews and Christians were allying themselves with the polytheists against those who sided with Muhammad. Should Muslims NOT have a right to deny fealty to those who undermine their interests? Lobby groups all around the world tell their supporters NOT to vote for such and such a person because his/her stance is not in the interests of the voting public? Why should Islam be any different? Does the Bible not forbid marriage and interaction with some people?

We must realize there is a difference between what the book says, and what we think it says. Thus far, I have illustrated this, I think, convincingly. Now from a faith perspective, a Muslim must believe in the infallibility of the Qur’an. From the academic perspective, one has to prove it is wrong, or with fault, and this has not been done, and I am aware of the puerile attempts by some to do so. The verses of fighting do not occur in a vacuum. The Muslims were threatened with annihilation and fought back defensively. And amongst their enemies were those who claimed to be Jewish or Christian NOMINALLY, while not practicing their religion. This is why the Qur’an 9:29 specifies: “Those among the People of the Book who believe NOT in God and the last day…”, when we know that the People of the Book do believe in God and the last day. The Muslims could not just allow themselves to be annihilated, but at least they did not aggress, but defended. Let us face a simple truth: none of the monotheistic religions is pacifist: Matthew 10:34, Luke 22:36, tells a person that the purchase of a sword is more important than clothing. And Islam says that if we have treaties with people that abide by those treaties, we are not allowed to fight them.

Even as I use the present tense, the fact is that the wars of the Qur’an are historical events, and all of this ceased with the conquest of Mecca. But the Muslims were threatened by the Byzantines and Persians who had long fought for Arabia, except now the Muslims had won. I do not deny that later Muslims have used the verses wrongly and made jihad into wars of expansion and aggression. But they have done so to a lesser extent than the other major religion that has professed pacifism while slaughtering the natives of so many lands. At least Islam does not have that on its record. Do you know that jizyah is a legacy from the Byzantines who had collected taxes from the Jews under them? Or that Solomon had collected taxes from the tribes he conquered? It was simply the law of the day, and in exchange for it, the recognized minorities were exempted from having to bear arms. Now you make a statement that I find astonishing: you state that the jizyah is practiced in much of the Muslim world today. In the Qur’an, we have the admonition: produce your proof if you are telling the truth. That is all I ask. I do NOT deny that on the law archives or constitutions of some countries, one may find this. I simply ask you to tell me which countries collect jizyah.”  And I must further add that a statement of someone does not suffice, for anyone may make allegations. I need proof, for I can produce proof of countries wherein Muslims are discriminated against because they are simply Muslims, and we know of the Bosnian genocide, etc. These Muslims were not even allowed to pay a tribute; they were just killed. And in Sudan, where supposedly missionaries take care of poor people, many are unaware of what happens to those who insist on remaining Muslims, which is why we have the term “rice Christians” -- to indicate why people convert, while the Muslims starve.

I have moved into a somewhat polemic tone because I detect in the final paragraphs of your letter that which demonizes, hopefully unconsciously, Islam without proof. And as for your reference to ijtihad, yes, I agree. But ijtihad requires knowledge of the mantras that I mentioned at the beginning of this letter. And there are several Muslims who practice it, which is why you do NOT find Muslims in every country taking special steps, imposing themselves on entire communities, seeking to convert them. Rather, we believe that for everyone there is a way to God, dictated by custom, tradition, or whatever peculiarity that may distinguish one person or people from another. Muslims are tired of being presented by non-Muslims who pretend to know our books better than we do; Muslims are tired of being told that they are intolerant when the intolerance comes from others (not that I do not admit that we have our cadre of intolerants). And it is this tolerance that hopefully lets your Sunni boyfriend not seek to convert you to Islam, but rather take you as one in whom he will find mawadda and sakinah, truth and justice, and one with whom he can come to a common agreement of doing good. May God guide you both to that which is just, for it is S/He who has made us different so that we may find pleasure in trying to know each other without prejudice.

Posted August 7, 2005