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Response to The Pope and the Qur'an

Reader comment on item: Pope Benedict XVI and the Koran

Submitted by Anees Ahmad (United States), Feb 18, 2006 at 08:47

Fazl-ur Rahman's belief that reinterpretation of the Qur'an can modernize is both flawed and ambiguous. He argues that a reinterpretation of Islamic ideals such as jihad, cutting off thieves' hands, or permitting polygamy would allow these customs to fit today's needs. If Muslims do this they will live happily ever after.

It is fitting that such a narrow-minded ideology would come from a Pakistani theologian. The Qur'an, according to Muslims, has been revealed in accordance with the nature of man, "So set thy face to the service of religion with single-minded devotion. And follow the nature made by Allah, the nature according to which He has fashioned mankind. There is no altering the creation of Allah. That is the right religion - but most men know not" (30:31). Here Allah speaks of the unchangeable nature of man that was extant since man was created. Islam argues that only a religion whose teachings are rooted in human psyche can truly be deemed a progressive and universal message and can thus transcend time – as human psyche transcends time. Thus, with Islam rooted in human psyche, any of its injunctions are as valid 1400 years ago as they are today. The question is not of reinterpretation but of application. The treasure house of knowledge stored within the Quran is truly limitless as stated most beautifully by Allah, "Say, 'If every ocean become ink for the words of my Lord, surely, the ocean would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even though We brought the like thereof as further help'" (18:110). [1] If this is taken as true, how can one reconcile the seeming incompatible teachings listed in the Quran and apply them to 2006?

The answer lies in understanding the true import of (30:31). As time changes, the needs of man also change. Therefore, only a religion whose word is absolutely comprehensive and total would be able to take on the challenge of providing for man at each step on the socio-evolutionary ladder. Islam constantly stresses context of place and time to determine the best answer to a situation. When we look at Islam in its nascent stage, a totally different society was in place. Every need had been provided for by the state, so one who would steal in this society threatened to harm the moral fabric of society. It is in this type of society that the injunction of the cutting of the hand can be taken literally. In the modern era, one can easily interpret this verse to mean to imprison those who commit theft so that their hands, as it were, were cut off from society and not able to do another wrong.

Polygamy was instituted at a time when some women became widows and others were divorced on their conversion to Islam. It must be understood that in order for man to be able to marry more than one wife certain conditions must be met and can be summed up as: any situation where there is a reduction in the population of men and an increase in the population of women would result in the institution of polygamy becoming practical. Such a situation could arise after a catastrophic war, where the majority of a nations male population is annihilated and the women are left as widows. In order to prevent women from becoming the slaves of poverty, and to prevent immorality and dirty habits to creep into society, it would be highly beneficial to implement this practice. A study of the "baby boomers" and women's cultural movement in the 1920's after WWI would serve as ample evidence for the practicality of this Islamic injunction. Also, the husband will become the financial and emotional support of the additional wife and therefore will be placing an extremely heavy burden on himself. Prophet Muhammad (saw) said in regards to preferential treatment of one wife over another, "He who has two wives and is inclined wholly towards one of them will have half his body paralyzed on the Day of Judgement."

If society imposes strict monogamy promiscuity, bestiality, lesbianism, and unwarranted sex will become rampant. A moral line is not to be drawn between monogamy and polygamy but between regulation and license: if there is an absence of moral restraint, either monogamy or polygamy could be abused. And so, as stated above, whenever there is an influx of women and a coinciding reduction of men in society, this injunction should be considered in order to safeguard morality. When arguing that Islam has not progressed like Christianity and Judaism, all this implies is that the example of the Israelite prophets were not universal and timeless. That Islam still considers the injunctions of the Quran regarding polygamy as practical, barring certain circumstances are met, only furthers the notion of Islam truly being a timeless and universal religion. Moreover, Islam is the only religion that puts a limit to the number of wives a man can have. The practice of Niyoga in Hinduism, or the supposed marriages of Abraham and Solomon recorded in the Old Testament declare that these practices were in vogue long before Islam. Unofficial polygamy practiced in the west today, with people having multiple partners and experimenting their sexuality to the utmost degree, is totally forbidden and has had far worse consequences than any other institution regarding relations between man and woman.

While permitting polygamy, Islam forbids polyandry. Women who are married to chronically ill, sterile or impotent husbands are allowed recourse to divorce, if they feel the situation is unbearable. This is so because the whole purpose of marriage is to maintain the human race. If one husband has four wives, he may get at least 4 children whereas one woman having four men would only reap children from one male, despite having intercourse with all four men. Moreover, it would be a great burden on the woman to provide for all four of her husbands, consequently preventing her from fulfilling her obligations to her children.

Despite the deep wisdom and practicality behind these injunctions, some ignorant ones have deemed it fit to malign and injure the holy character of Prophet Muhammad (saw). Whereas this declaration is totally false and unfounded, it may be of interest to objective readers to read what non-Muslims had to say about Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his practice of polygamy:

Dr Annie Besant: "But do you mean to tell me that the man who in the full flush of youthful vigour, a young man of four and twenty (24), married a woman much his senior, and remained faithful to her for six and twenty years (26), at fifty years of age when the passions are dying married for lust and sexual passion? Not thus are men's lives to be judged. And you look at the women whom he married, you will find that by every one of them an alliance was made for his people, or something was gained for his followers, or the woman was in sore need of protection" (The Life and Teachings of Mohammad, Madras, 1932).

Geoffrey Parrinder: "No great religious leader has been so maligned as Prophet Mohammed. Attacked in the past as a heretic, an impostor, or a sensualist, it is still possible to find him referred to as 'the false prophet.' A modern German writer accuses Prophet Mohammed of sensuality, surrounding himself with young women. This man was not married until he was twenty-five years of age, then he and his wife lived in happiness and fidelity for twenty-four years, until her death when he was forty-nine. Only between the age of fifty and his death at sixty-two did Prophet Mohammed take other wives, only one of whom was a virgin, and most of them were taken for dynastic and political reasons. Certainly the Prophet's record was better than the head of the Church of England, Henry VIII" (Mysticism in the World's Religions, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976, pg. 121).

Lastly, the topic of Jihad needs to be addressed. According to Islamic doctrine, there are 3 types of Jihad:

* The greatest Jihad (Jihad Kabir) which is the Jihad to preach the word of God through the Holy Quran that was started the very first day the Holy Prophet (saw) started his mission and continued till the last breath of his life, "Fight against them by means of it (the Quran) a great fight (25:53).

* The Jihad that is waged against lower self for self-purification, the greater Jihad (Jihad Akbar). This Jihad was also started the day Islam was introduced by the Holy Prophet (saw). God's teachings purified them and taught them to wage war against Satan, "He it is Who has raised among the Unlettered people a Messenger from among themselves who recites unto them His Signs, and purifies them and teaches them the Book and wisdom, although they had been before, in manifest misguidance" (62:3).

* The lesser Jihad (Jihad Ashgar) is the Jihad that is waged against the enemy of freedom of conscious as also to fight in self-defense. This Jihad was started after 13 years of severe persecution of the Muslims

Thus the Jihad that is to bring all of man under the fold of Islam is Jihad Akbar as well as Jihad Kabir. Jihad Ashgar cannot be employed for the spread of Islam, but only for self–defense; and that too only when circumstances dictate that if the party does not defend itself, it will face total destruction.

Any verse telling man to struggle with their selves is clearly in reference to a situation where Muslims must engage in battle – a time that only arises when a prophet or Khalifa declares Jihad. It does not in anyway state that one should go about slaying any non-Muslims so that Islam can prevail. Verily, a peaceful state is not allowed to be disturbed by any Muslim, "And create not disorder in the earth after it has been set in order …" (7:57, 11:86, 29:37). In regards to teachings of war, Muslims have been ordered to maintain the most humane teachings, even at times of war, "And if anyone of the idolaters ask protection of thee, grant him protection, so that he may hear the word of Allah: then convey him to his place of security. That is because they are a people who have no knowledge" (9:6) – tell me of any religion that has such tolerant and peace-promoting teachings as Islam does! In his farewell address the Holy Prophet (saw) said, "O men, you still have in your possession some prisoners of war. I advise you, therefore, to feed them and to clothe them in the same way and style as you feed and clothe yourselves ... To give them pain or trouble can never be tolerated."

• The editor of the Hindu Sat Updaish wrote, "Some people say that Islam was preached by the sword, but we cannot agree with this view. What is forced on people is soon rejected. Had Islam been imposed on people through oppression, there would have been no Islam today. Why? Because the Prophet of Islam had spiritual power, he loved humanity and he was guided by the ideal of ultimate good" (Sat Updaish, Lahore, 7 July 1915; see Barguzida Rasul Ghairon Main Maqbul, 12, 13).

* The editor of the Vedic Magazine, Kangri Ram Dev, said: "Sitting in Medina, Muhammad Sahib (peace be to him) held the Arabs spellbound; he filled them with spiritual strength; strength that makes devtas [gods] out of men… it is incorrect to say that Islam spread with the force of the sword. It is a fact that the sword was never wielded to propagate Islam. If religion can be spread by force then let anyone try it today" (Prof. Ram Dev, The Prakash, see Burguzida Rasul Ghairon Main Maqbul, 24).
* A non-Muslim scholar, Dr D. W. Leitz states, "All these arguments, advanced to prove that the purpose of jihad was to spread Islam by force, are contradicted by the Quran. The Quran says that the purpose of jihad is to protect mosques, churches, synagogues and cloisters" (Asiatic Quarterly Review, October 1886). He was referring to, "Permission to fight is granted to those against whom war has been made because they have been wronged. Allah indeed has the power to help them. They are those who have been driven out of their homes because they affirmed that our Lord is Allah. If Allah did not repel the aggression of some by the means of others, then surely cloisters, churches, synagogues and mosques—where His name is honored—would be destroyed?" (22:40–41).
* Gandhi used to say, "Islam was born in an atmosphere of violence. At that time its determining force was the sword and even today it is the sword" but later corrected himself and wrote in Young India, "The more I study the more I discover that the strength of Islam does not lie in the sword."

• Pandit Gyanandra Dev Sharma Shastri, member of the staunch anti-Islam Arya Samaj Community, states: "Biased critics of Islam and especially those who want to provoke Hindu-Muslim riots in the country say that Hazrat Muhammad after acquiring power in Medina could not maintain his facade of mercy and kindness. There he used force and violence and became a murderous prophet to achieve his life-long aim of power, status and wealth. He fell short of his own ideal of patience, moderation and endurance. But this is the view of those observers who are prejudicial and partisan, who are narrow minded and whose eyes are covered by a veil of ignorance. They see fire instead of light, ugliness instead of beauty and evil instead of good. They distort and present every good quality as a great vice. It reflects their own depravity…The critics are blind. They cannot see that the only 'sword' Muhammad wielded was the sword of mercy, compassion, friendship and forgiveness—the sword that conquers enemies and purifies their hearts. His sword was sharper than the sword of steel" (Dunya ka Hadi Ghairon Ki Nazar Main, pp. 57, 61)

• An objective Sikh said, "In the beginning the Prophet's enemies made life difficult for him and his followers. So the Prophet asked his followers to leave their homes and migrate to Medina. He preferred migration to fighting his own people, but when oppression went beyond the pale of tolerance he took up his sword in self-defense. Those who believe religion can be spread by force are fools who neither know the ways of religion nor the ways of the world. They are proud of this belief because they are a long, long way away from the Truth" (Nawan Hindustan , Delhi, November 17th, 1947).

It is thus established that Islam did not endorse the use of force to spread its message – so far as the Holy Prophet and/or his 4 Righteous Caliphs are concerned. Moreover, it is not correct to state that Muslims must modernize by reinterpreting their religion, but instead they must apply certain injunctions only when needed.

Now to Pope Benedict. The Pope's comments were even more disturbing than Rahman's. He stated that in Islam God has given His word to Muhammad, but it is there for eternity as is. There is no chance of adapting or interpreting Islam. I am deeply saddened at quality of study the Pope has undertaken to understand Islam. Nothing could be farther from the truth. As demonstrated above, there is more than ample room for interpretation and application of Islam to the modern era as much as in any time period.

The Pope continues by arguing that in Christianity and Judaism, "God has worked through His creatures. And so, it is not just the word of God, it's the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He's used His human creatures, and inspired them to speak His word to the world." It is baffling that the Pope sees God working through his creatures in the Old and New Testament but not in the Quran. Moreover, it is puzzling that the Pope sees nothing wrong with admitting that the supposed Word of God has the word of man intertwined with it. The Holy Quran, on the other hand, declares that the Holy Quran is purely the Word of God (10:38, 58), which He revealed to His Chosen Prophet (69:41). Both ideas are combined in the following verse as well, "He it is who has raised among the unlettered people a Messenger from among themselves who recites unto them His Signs, and purifies them, and fosters their welfare, and teaches them the Book and wisdom" (62:3). Thus the Quran maintains that it is a Book which has remained free from human intervention, and that it is through only one man that its teachings were personified to total excellence. The only 'inner logic' I find is with that of the injunctions of the Quran.

Mahmud Muhammad Taha argument that specific Quranic rulings applied only to Medina, and that modern-day Muslims should live by the principles delivered at Mecca is absolutely asinine. The incidences of Mecca and Medina allowed Prophet Muhammad to demonstrate to the whole of mankind how to meet with any predicament. It is for this very reason that Allah has emphatically stated, "Verily, you have in the Prophet of Allah an excellent model, for him who hopes to meet Allah and the Last Day and who remembers Allah much" (33:22). It is for this very reason that Dr. Michael Hart was compelled to rate Prophet Muhammad as the most important man in history stating, "he was the only man in history who was supremely successful on both the religious and secular levels." Taha's argument also fails as the Holy Quran itself declares, "... And We have sent down to thee the Book to explain everything and a guidance and a mercy and glad tidings to those who submit to Allah" (16:90).[2]

• "Even without accepting a grand schema such as Taha proposed, Muslims are already making small moves in the same direction. Islamic courts in reactionary Iran, for example, have broken with Islamic tradition and now permit women the right to sue for divorce and grant a murdered Christian equal recompense with that of a murdered Muslim."

While Muslims may have begun to act in this manner, it is a total fabrication that these prevalent ideologies can be dubbed as 'Islamic tradition.' A female, just like a male, has the right to divorce (2:228). Along with the allowance of women to divorce their husbands during the prophethood of Hazrat Muhammad, this notion that a woman divorcing her partner is a recent phenomenon totally belies common sense. Of a murdered Christian being granted equal recompense, the very same was the practice of Prophet Muhammad and his righteous caliphs. If Mr. Pipes is concerned about the application of these laws that were set out by Prophet Muhammad 1400 years ago, he need look no further for their implementation than the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community – the true Renaissance of Islam.[3]

[1] See also (2:24–25; 10:39; 11:14; 17:89; 31:28; 52:35)

[2] See also (12:112; 39:2–3)

[3] See www.alislam.org for more information

Note: Opinions expressed in comments are those of the authors alone and not necessarily those of Daniel Pipes. Original writing only, please. Comments are screened and in some cases edited before posting. Reasoned disagreement is welcome but not comments that are scurrilous, off-topic, commercial, disparaging religions, or otherwise inappropriate. For complete regulations, see the "Guidelines for Reader Comments".

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