There are many verses in the Quran which, at face value, seem quite hostile to Jews and Christians, sometimes violently so. However, if I have learnt anything from my interactions with Muslims it is that we need to interpret the Quran more carefully. And that means contextually.
Problem is, the Quran itself provides no narrative context for the verses therein. The chapters are ordered by size, not chronology, and you have to go beyond the Quran, to the Sira (life of Mohammed) and Haddith (traditions), to understand the circumstances of their utterance. It's all very confusing.
Consequently I have been looking for an Islamic equivalent to Gordon Fee's "How to read the Bible for all its worth". I haven't found anything I'm completely happy with yet. But I can suggest these 5 Principles for Understanding “Difficult” Qur’anic Passages from Sohaib N. Sultan. He writes:
When I have the opportunity to engage with people of other faiths, I am often asked about controversial passages in the Qur’an that seem belligerent toward non-Muslims. It would require an entire book to go over every single such passage and offer theories of interpretation and explanation. So, I would like to offer something else as food for thought: five principles to keep in mind when studying or trying to understand these difficult Qur’anic passages.
Islam is the third and last of Abraham’s sibling faiths following Judaism and Christianity. Each religion offers a vigorous critique of what came before, partly as a justification for needing a new prophet and revelation. As such, Islam has much to say in way of praise as well as criticism of Jews and Christians as previously revealed faiths. If Islam had come before Judaism or Christianity, they would surely have had similar critiques of Islam.
The Qur’an, when offering critiques of Jews and Christians, always uses the term in Arabic “al” to indicate “the,” which in the Arabic language indicates specificity, not generality. In other words, all of these verses are talking about a specific group of Jews and/or Christians, by no means all Jews and Christians. In fact, the Qur’an itself reminds Muslims: “But they are not all alike. There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelation during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied [the reward] for whatever good deeds they do: God knows exactly who is conscious of Him” (3:113-115). All passages that offer criticism of Jews or Christians must be tempered with this cautionary passage.
From a Muslim perspective, the Qur’an is not playing favoritism toward any one subjective group but rather more interested in objectively holding up truth and righteousness. As such, it does offer scathing criticism of Jews and Christians when their communities failed to uphold truth and righteousness, but there are also passages in the Qur’an where God offers scathing criticism of Muslims for their failings too. In fact, if you collect all of the passages in the Qur’an that are specifically addressed to the Muslims (usually beginning with “O you who believe”), what often follows is a criticism or a warning. For example, “O you who believe, why do you say things and then do not do them? It is most hateful to God that you say that which you do not do” (61:2-3).
These passages from the Qur’an must be read keeping in mind two contexts: historical and textual. When you come across a passage in which the Qur’an is condemning Jews or Christians, you have to pause and ask yourself what was happening at the historical time of the revelation and what is it that the Qur’an is actually responding to. And, you have to also ask yourself if there are other passages within the Qur’an that temper or clarify the “difficult” passage. For example, in Chapter 5, the Qur’an strongly discourages Muslims from taking Jews and Christians as their allies (awliyah). But, much later in the Qur’an, in Chapter 60, it clarifies that the previous passage was meant only for those who acted belligerently toward the Muslims, not those who were good to the Muslims and kept their treaties with them.
Lastly, one has to keep in mind when reading such passages that the Islamic tradition has a long and vast history of developing schools of interpretation around the Qur’an that dissect every verse of the Qur’an with linguistic and grammatical analysis, historical context and commentary, to name only a few. As such, as is true with other revealed scriptures, a literal and outward reading of the text – let alone the translated text – defies the way in which Muslims have read and understood their scripture for centuries.
Something had always puzzled me. Why do Muslims consider the Kaabah so sacred when it functioned as a pagan temple before Mohammed conquered Mecca?
So I asked some Muslim friends.
They informed me the Kaabah held the status it did amongst Muslims because it was built by Ibrahim and Ishmael in dedication to Allah. That what Mohammed did was “restore” the Kaabah to its true and original function.
This only raised another question. Is there any archaeological evidence to support the claim that Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaabah rather than local pagans? However, the answers I received weren’t particularly enlightening one way or the other.
So I put that second question to you. I have to say I am sceptical. But I am open to being swayed in there is any solid archaeological evidence that predates Mohammed’s conquest of Mecca.
Female circumcision is widely associated with Muslims in Western consciousness, but in truth the practice of female circumcision varies widely between different Muslim communities. Why is this?
Well, I came across an intriguing explanation for this in "The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom" by Mark Durie. Mark writes:
"The modern distribution of female circumcision among Muslims cannot be explained in terms of geography, nor in terms of pre-existing cultures before the arrival of Islam. The Acehnese in Indonesia were Hindus before converting to Islam, yet they practice female circumcision, while Indian Muslims, who also converted out of Hinduism, do not generally follow the practice. The simple explanation for the distribution of female circumcision among Muslims in the world today is that, while all four schools of Sunni Islam allow the practice, it is only the Shafi‘i school which makes it mandatory. Wherever female circumcision is widely practiced among Muslims, this is a region where the Shafi’i version of Sharia law prevails. In this case it is belief which determines behavior, not perfectly, but to a very significant degree."
I have since had many Muslim acquaintances affirm that many of the differences in the ways Muslims practice Islam can be attributed to different schools of jurisprudence. So there you go.