Islam and jihad
6) The Qur'an
patience with what [unbelievers] say and leave them with dignity"
"...I will cast dread
into the hearts of the unbelievers. Strike off their heads, then, and
strike off all of their fingertips."
is the Qur'an, Sunnah and Hadith?
Qur'an (or Koran) is a collection of Muhammad's sayings; supposedly
divine words and visions
given to Muhammad from time to time to reveal to his followers.
The Qur'an was compiled after Muhammad's death from what a group of his
followers had either noted in some way or from what they could remember
limited writings were made prior to his death because Muhammad's Bedouin
culture had no written language, and up until then they had little need
of written laws. A clan's sheik was its law, and to an extent the law was
whatever the sheik stated it to be. The same fluid authority was granted
to Muhammad who expanded that authority even further the year he would claim
over all aspects of human life.
word qur'an means 'recitation' since it is a collection of what Muhammad
recited to his followers. Recitation is also a fitting description as the
recollection itself was compiled from what Muhammad's followers thought
they remembered him saying and could themselves still recite.
are the oral traditions recounting the ways of Muhammad; and though similar
to the Qur'an, they are distinct from it. The Hadith (stories or traditions)
are often prefaced by who heard it from whom. These accounts were not finalized
in writing until more than a century had passed after Muhammad's death.
When this was carried out, the stories were divided by topic and divided
between what were thought to be from the most reliable sources and lesser
reliable ones. The more reliable ones comprise what is referred to as the
Sunnah; the least simply the Hadith.
of the Qur'an
the time of Muhammad's death, there were several different manuscripts bearing
his sayings. Most of them resided with the handful of disciples that had
served as Muhammad's scribes. Also, each of the four "rightly
guided Caliphs" - his closest disciples - were believed to
have their own collections. At Umar bin al-Khattab's prompting, Caliph Abu
Bakr commissioned Zaid bin Thabit to gather and sort all of Muhammad's sayings
for the purpose of creating a single master collection.
did so, putting in writing what he determined were the most accurate sayings
Muhammad was remembered to have said. Abu Bakr was murdered just before
the work was completed, so Zaid ended up giving the master manuscript to
al-Khattab. However, it was very clear that many verses committed to memory
around Arabia were not necessarily the same version or versions that made
it into Zaid's written collection. Al-Khattab was sensitive to how this
might be received and did not want to aggravate his soldiers who at this
time were engaged in important expansion campaigns. So he quietly let Zaid's
master manuscripts come to rest with his daughter Hafsa.
sixteen years later in 650, General Hudaifa reported that Muslim armies
from Kufa and Damascus were about to war against each other as each insisted
only it had committed to memory the true sayings of Muhammad (some say the
year was 662). Zaid was again called on, this time by Caliph Uthman bin
Affan who had taken for himself the incredible title of "Caliph Allah"
or "Successor to God".
was now to retrieve the previous masterwork and update it in such a way
as to prevent an impending civil war. However, controversy abounded as Zaid
was accused of including unattested-to verses. It was charged that his original
master was not in genuine Arabic and that differences between extant manuscripts
were not being properly worked out. Caliph Uthman, hoping to end all this
controversy, confiscated all the old original quranic manuscripts known
to exist and had them burned. He further declared that any Muslim who did
not accept Zaid's collection was an unbeliever.
bold act may have simplified the issue for new converts, but previous versions
of Muhammad's sayings would remain etched in the memory of long-time followers,
and those sayings would eventually coalesce into parallel Qur'ans. (Thus
the controversy over who had the real Qur'an persisted and continues to
persist to this day.)
long after Uthman's destruction of the manuscripts, several swords found
their way into the Successor to God's chest and he was succeeded by the
fourth of the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs - Ali bin Abi Talib. (Ali's supporters
were known as the party of Ali - the Shi'atu Ali or simply Shi'a.)
magnanimously granted amnesty to his predecessor's killers, unaware that
he too would later be succeeded on the throne after a poisoned sword blow
to the head. But while he lived, as the late Muhammad's son-in-law he embodied
for his Shi'a sect the consolidation of the Umma's spiritual and political
leadership. He is remembered by Shi'a followers as the first Imam
- "Proof of God on Earth."
are said to be infallible and sinless, created from eternal light, and "know
the secret name of God, and are the only ones who possess the spiritual
guidance necessary to reveal the inner truth of the Muslim faith.")
language of the Qur'an
are different opinions on the exact nature of the Qur'an, but the prevailing
belief is that it contains the exact words of Allah, exactly as they were
spoken to Muhammad, exactly how Muhammad recited them to mankind, and in
the exact Arabic that Allah spoke (regardless of the aforementioned history).
This is why the Qur'an is said to cease being the Qur'an if it is translated
from Arabic to any other language. Only in the language Allah speaks, Arabic,
is it believed the Qur'an maintains its mystical power.
words of the Qur'an are not just honored for their content, but each word
is believed to possess a beneficial power within itself, and this regardless
of whether you know what is being said or not. Reza Aslan explains:
Even today, Muslims
of every culture and ethnicity must read the Qur'an in Arabic, whether
they understand it or not. The message of the Qur'an is vital to living
a proper life as a Muslim, but it is the words themselves - the actual
speech of the one and only God - that possess a spiritual power known
...The words of the
Qur'an...are emblazened on common objects like cups, bowls, and lamps,
so that when one eats from a plate adorned with God's Speech, or lights
a lamp with a Quranic verse etched into it, one is able to consume baraka,
to be illuminated by it... [T]he words of the Qur'an act as a talisman
that transmits divine power.
...Another way in
which Muslims experience baraka is through the art, or rather the science,
of Quranic recitation...with strict rules regulating when one is permitted
to stop during a recitation and when it is forbidden to stop, when to
prostrate oneself and when to rise, when to breathe and when not to take
breath, which consonants to stress and and how long to hold each vowel.
familiar with the ancient Jewish use of phylacteries may see a curious parallel
here. In both cases there is an overemphasis on the superficial (the veritable
worship of a collection of alphabetic characters and the process of speaking
them) coupled with a dangerous disregard for substance (only secondarily
emphasizing what the words were actually meant to communicate).
paraphrase Bruce Lee from Enter the Dragon, "It's like a finger
pointing the way to the moon. Concentrate on the finger, and you miss all
the heavenly glory." In other words, become so enamored with the words
as objects of reverence, and they become idols whose real purpose is no
longer observed. That is exactly the case for many Muslims and the Qur'an
today as Abd al-Masih explains:
the beginning, the QurŽan was learned by heart as the understandable word
of Allah. People at first refrained from explaining the verses. Those
who were in favor of this custom said if the QurŽan needed explanation,
humans would have to help Allah to make his word understood.
the Arabic QurŽan is being drummed into thousands of children to this
day without being explained.
miraculous verses are neither to be thought about nor to be understood,
but they are to be preserved. Any critical thought about the QurŽan
is unwelcome because it would mean that human intellect would rise above
Allah and would try to comprehend him.
however, means submission, which leaves no room for critical understanding
- even in Islamic theology!
fluid nature of the Qur'an
interesting and important aspect of the Qur'an is the relative or fluid
nature of authority that was inherent in Sheik/clan structures, and the
identical nature of authority that Muhammad's disciples ascribed to Muhammad's
were the central authority over their clan and the law was what the Sheik
said it was. If the law changed from time to time, that's just how it was.
Muhammad was ascribed equal and even greater authority, and he too communicated
instructions that were occasionally contrary to something he had instructed
previously. This was accepted with the same pragmatic flexibility allowed
the sheiks; an aspect they viewed as a strength - the ability to change
the law as circumstances warranted. As the Qur'an states, "Whenever
we abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten, we exchange it with a better
or similar one; don't you know God can do anything?" (2:106)
Muhammad's death introduced an unforeseen problem, causing one of several
splits which have occurred within Islam. This split was over the nature
of Allah's will and its either continued flexibility with regard to continually
changing circumstances, or its newfound rigidity once Allah's special mediator
Muhammad was dead and gone. This split is what translates into liberal
versus conservative Islam today.
liberal sects of Islam believe that Islamic law is intended to change with
the times just as Muhammad changed it on occasion. In doing so, Muhammad
was following the time honored tradition of the Sheiks. Conservative Islam
disagrees and believes that whatever Muhammad said last is the vein in which
Allah now intends Islam to forever continue.
from Muslim concerns for a moment, the problem this dilemma poses for the
non-Islamic world is critical. The directives in place at the time Muhammad
died were ones hostile to non-Muslims. Most of his last twelve years on
earth were spent purging the Arab regions of people unwilling to accept
him as Allah's special prophet and opposing his Arabian empire. Liberal
Muslims interpret these circumstances as merely relative to the establishment
of his initial kingdom; circumstances which no longer apply and thus believe
Muslims should return to Muhammad's initial instructions to tolerate other
faiths and non-believers.
Muslims, however, view Muhammad's purging of nonbelievers as the final solution
to the problem of unbelievers worldwide. They believe Muhammad's earlier
tolerance of other faiths was merely temporary - a time of grace that has
long since expired. Conservative Muslims believe Islam must continue Muhammad's
mission that was interrupted with his death; a mission permanently fixed
on the belief that it is Allah's will all non-Muslims be killed or physically
Islamic school of thought will win out? I wager the liberal one, but the
conservative one is pushing toward global nuclear religious war as hard
as it can. The cost of losing such a war is the only thing more unthinkable
than the cost of what it may take to win it.
Qur'an and the Umm al-Kitab
I have mentioned what Muslims believe the Qur'an's relationship to the Bible
to be which I'll partly repeat here. Muhammad sometimes referred to Christians
and Jews as "People
of the Book", but this was not in reference to the Bible or Torah.
He spoke in reference to a book believed to exist in heaven called the Umm
al-Kitab or "Mother of Books."
believed that from the Umm al-Kitab, the first third was revealed to the
Jews (the Old Testament essentially); the second third was revealed to the
Christians (the New Testament and the apocryphal writings), and the last
third was being revealed to himself via the words that came into his mind.
Muhammad believed they all taught the same, singular story of mankind.
are, of course, real differences of theology between the Judeo-Christian
texts and Muhammad's revelations, as he was at least partly aware, but he
explained these as corruptions which must have crept into the Torah and
will find the Qur'an laid out topically into "suras" or
chapters, not chronologically.
The Qur'an, along with the Sunnah and Hadith, occasionally read as historical
narratives like the Bible; but more often read as short statements on life
and conduct, not unlike the Book of Proverbs.
Islamic thinking, the Qur'an doesn't deny the existence of the Bible, but
instead claims to overrule it. The Qur'an's "predecessors such as
the Torah, Psalms, and Gospels have all been superseded. It is an obligation
- and blessing - for all [to] hear of the Qur'an...". According
[Islam] is a rapidly
spreading religion because of its cultural and political appeal and its
universal message of peace, temperance and the brotherhood of man.
The nature of its "peace" and exact degree of its "temperance"
is best judged by history and by a closer look at its own teachings and
practitioners. We shall continue to do so beginning with a study of Nasikh
wa Mansukh, or the doctrine of abrogation, without which one cannot
properly interpret Islam's texts or apply their sayings (a must-read before
you conclude you know the nature of the Qur'an).
The doctrine of abrogation