Tag Archive | Jesus

From the Horses Mouth – Harvard’s Karen King on the “Jesus’s Wife” Paparyus

I’ve been hearing a lot over the past day or so about the discovery of a new gospel fragment, and whether it means that Jesus had a wife… I have no authority in this area, nor do I really care, but the following link tells it like it is and gives you the basics on what is going on. I suggest reading it before sending your own opinion into the social media ether…


The Importance of Language: How a couple of marks on a page can make the difference between virgins and grapes

“The Qur’an”, a one-off television programme produced by Channel 4 in 2008 (UK) opened with:

“In 2001 a German study caused such outrage that all mention of it was banned in some Islamic counties, the author published under pseudonym and will only speak if his identity can remain concealed.” This is referring to the work by Christoph Luxenberg “The Syro-Aramaic reading of the Koran” (English, 2007).

His basic premise is that over a fifth of the Koran contains unintelligible words or words which don’t make real sense. This, he believes, can be reduced, with a knowledge of Syriac (Syro-Aramaic), to around 5%. Syriac was the dominant language of Christian liturgy by 3rd century, and by time of Muhammad, Syriac was the major written and cultural language of the whole region, whereas written Arabic was in its infancy. There are pre Islamic inscriptions in Arabic but the first real book in the language is Koran.

The issue is not the tracing of other languages in the Koran, as Muslim scholars have always done this e.g. in the 10th Century al-Tabari identified Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Persian, Abyssinian and Syriac. The difference is that Luxenberg is claiming new meanings never before suggested.

His method involves loosely:

Starting from those passages that are unclear to the Western commentators, first check if there is a plausible explanation in Tabarī that the Western commentators overlooked. If not, then check if there are any records of a meaning unknown to Tabarī and his earlier sources. If this turns up nothing, check if the Arabic expression has a homonymous root in Syriac with a different meaning which fits the context. If these steps do not avail, then see if changing one or more diacritical marks results in an Arabic expression that makes more sense. If not, then change the diacritical point(s) and then check if there is a homonymous Syriac root with a plausible meaning.

An example of how he uses this process is the Koranic verse from Gabriel to Mary after giving birth to Jesus: “Be not sad, your Lord has placed a little river beneath you.” Which Luxenberg renders:  “Be not sad, your lord has made your delivery legitimate.” This illustrates a big criticism of Luxenberg, which is that he seems to be coming from a very Christian-Centric viewpoint.

In his book he describes how by an interesting process the Koranic Verse “and We have paired them with dark-, wide-eyed (maidens) [wa-zawwağnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn]…” becomes “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes) [wa-rawwahnāhum bi-ḥūr ‘īn].”


My pathetic attempt to illustrate the point in question. On the left is the traditionally accepted version, and on the right is Luxenberg's

In the first section, he “proves” that Arabic scholars have misread zawwağnāhum by placing two erroneous unnecessary dialectical markings… with these removed it now reads rawwahnāhum – “we will let them rest” as opposed to “to marry.” He believes this mistake was made because the second (“correct”) reading does not fit with their erroneous reading of the next preposition “bi.”

Looking at “bi” in Syriac, Luxenberg notes 22 different functions of this preposition and chooses number 20 “between, under” as being the correct one (although he does not tell us why) rendering the sentence “We will let them rest under ḥūr ‘īn” or roughly “We will make them comfortable under ḥūr ‘īn.”

“ḥūr” according to Luxenberg has been correctly understood as meaning white, and comes before a feminine word. The problem is with ‘īn, which has always been seen by Arabic scholars as meaning “eye.” There is never any mention of virgins, this has just been inferred. Luxenberg argues against this firstly because white eyed was never a term used to describe beauty (this was always dark-eyed) but to actually describe someone who was blind. Through some complicated reasoning, and looking at various Syriac Christian sources, and other uses of fruit and particularly grapes in paradise imagery and earthly gardens in the Koran he reaches his conclusion that the verse should be: “We will make you comfortable under white, crystal(-clear) (grapes).”

Luxenberg believes this gives a more reasonable rendition of the verse because Christian-Oriental notions of paradise finding their expression in the Koran – “helps the Koran to achieve its original inner coherence.” It also fits with all the other imagery of the gardens of paradise, especially as the grapevine “is an essential component of the earthly garden.” (p. 257)

For example, this picture comes from a 5th century Egyptian monastery, where we see archangels receiving souls in paradise, grape in one hand, cradling departed souls who are refreshed with grapes. Grapes are also a very prominent motif in the vestments of the priests of the Syrian Orthodox Church.

In Luxenberg’s words:

“It was not, say, that the prophet had misunderstood Christian illustrations of Paradise, but rather that the later Islamic exegesis had misinterpreted the Koranic paraphrase of Christian Syriac hymns containing analogous descriptions of Paradise under the influence of Persian conceptions of the mythological virgins of Paradise.” (249)

He also (p. 250) cites Koran 4:82 “Were it (the Koran) namely not from God, you would find (in comparison to the Scripture [the OT & NT]) many differences (inconsistencies).”  Therefore, according to Luxenberg, it makes little sense for there to be these wide eyed virgins… but “The Koran is right. For the Koran is not to blame if, out of ignorance, people have read it so falsely and projected onto it their subjective, and all too earthly daydreams.” The grape motif fits much better with the Christian notion of paradise and Luxenberg believes that this makes it much more likely.

Whilst there are the obvious extreme reactions to writing of this nature, and a very obvious Christian bias in his writing, it has received a more positive reaction from some Muslims. Dr Taj Hargey (Muslim Educational Centre, Oxford) says that Luxenberg’s work doesn’t undermine anyy of the tenets, teachings or principles of Islam. It provides interesting questions for thinking, 21st century Muslims who should look at what he is providing and not just condemn. Tariq Ramadan (Oxford University) acknowledges that it really doesn’t matter if Luxenberg is right or not as the Koranic descriptions should be taken as symbolic – we have to go beyond the images – they are just a description of what is going to be beautiful beyond our imagination.

Whilst many academics have been critical of Luxenberg, a number of academics have stated that Luxenberg’s work is valid, if only because it has focused attention on various deficiencies in contemporary Koranic studies.

I trust that it is fairly obvious that whilst I support the spirit of Luxenberg’s enterprise, I have insufficient knowledge to evaluate his conclusions (especially regarding the virgins versus the grapes). I would be somewhat sceptical regarding his methodology, and believe that traditional interpretations have to be taken in to account. There must be a reason that things have become traditional in the first place.

P.S. I began this post using “Qur’an” to designate this particular book, and then proceeded to utilise “Koran”. This is because Luxenberg himself uses “Koran” throughout his book, although I would personally prefer to use “Qur’an”. Either are acceptable academically, yet Qur’an is generally deemed to be somewhat closer to the Arabic.


A very, very short introduction to Islam

This used to be one of my most popular posts, but since changing the URL and design of this site, it hasn’t really had any traffic at all. Perhaps by adding this brief note, and “updating” the post, Google will realise it still exists… 

In a post of this nature it is only natural that I am going to have to be very general… to those of you who may know very little about Islam, I hope this will be very informative… to those of you who have read some books, or maybe studied various aspects in more depth, I hope that my deeper penetration of more contemporary issues might shed some light on areas you are unfamiliar with, or provoke some discussion. I’d also heartily recommend checking out the links at the bottom of the page, which I have been updating as and when I remember.

This is neither going to be an attack or defence of Islam. There are plenty of these around, all of which have their merits and setbacks. Whilst it is of course impossible for me to present all sides of every argument, and whilst I have no doubt I will end up being ludicrously biased in numerous respects, I aim to present as balanced a picture as possible. The overriding thrust of this presentation shall be that there is no such thing as a monolithic Islam – just as there will be countless “Christian” stances on abortion/homosexuality/terrorism etc., or various “Christian” interpretations of the nature of God’s revelation, or on the specifics of the Communion/Eucharist/Lord’s Supper… so to with almost every point we consider in relation to Islam.

There are many contemporary and historical issues which I could have written about, and shall potentially write about in future, including Apostasy, Democracy, Homosexuality, Finance, Sufism and Women’s Rights, but time and space mean that things inevitably have to be left out. If there is anything that particularly raises any questions, please do post a comment and I shall try and answer as rigorously as I can.

First of all, a few basic facts to start us off:

23.1% of the world’s population are Muslim
Of these, 10-13% are Shia, 87-90% are Sunni
20% of the world’s Muslims live in countries where they are the minority…

Two thirds live in the following 10 countries (in order) :

Indonesia c. 203 million 88.2%
Pakistan c. 174 million 96.3%
India c. 161 million 13.4%
Bangladesh 145 million 89.6%
Egypt 78 million 94.6%
Nigeria 78 million 50.4%
Iran 74 million 99.4%
Turkey 74 million 98%
Algeria 34 million 98%
Morocco 32 million 99%

In the UK there are c. 1.6 million (2.7%) and the USA c. 2.5 million (0.8%). See this informative article in the Guardian for my sources, and more statistics.

What is Islam?

““Islam” in Arabic is a verbal noun, meaning self-surrender to God as revealed through the message and life of his Prophet, Muhammad. In its primary meaning […] the word Muslim refers to one who so surrenders him- or herself.” (Malise Ruthven)

“Islam is a comprehensive system which deals with all spheres of live. It is a state and a homeland (or a government and a nation). It is morality and power (or mercy and justice). It is culture and a law (or knowledge and jurisprudence). It is material and wealth (or gain and prosperity). It is an endeavour and a call (or an army and a cause). And finally, it is true belief and worship.” (al-Banna, 1978 cited in Abdulkader Ismail Tayob, 2007)

Just as Christians and Jews can identify with their parents’ faith without practicing the faith themselves, so too it is entirely possible to have non-practicing Muslims.

However, this does not mean that Islam is in some way “racially” inherited. It is true that the Arab peoples are often associated with Islam and that in reality, “many non-Arab Muslims […assume that] an Arab is […] a Muslim by definition” (Azam Tamimi), however the key point here is the very existence of non-Arab Muslims. “The Arabs as a people, both in terms of race and ethnic category, predate Islam” (ibid), and there is nothing contradictory in the designation of Arab Christians or Arab Jews.

Where did Islam originate?

The Arabian Peninsula

  • Comprises modern day Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia is about 4/5ths of the peninsula and it is approximately 2.2million square kilometres. UK is just over 200,000 square kilometres…
  • Its predominant feature is its aridity.
  • The bulk of Arabia is desert relieved only by scattered oases.
  • Much of Arabia was fit only for pastoralism, and a nomadic pastoralism at that

According to Michael Cook, at the time of Muhammad (c.6th/7th):

  • The Arabs had never posed a serious military threat, and were unlikely to do so
  • Escalating conflict between Rome and Persia was likely to lead to a tightening of their grip on anything of worth in Arabia
  • It was only a matter of time before Arabia became Christian…


Born c. 570CE at Mecca/Makka… site of the Ka’ba

The Ka’ba at Mecca

  • Some suggest this was the site of fertility cults or something similar
  • Muslims hold that the Ka’ba was built by Abraham at the place of sacrifice

His tribe, the Quraysh, were very influential…

  • They were the guardians of the sanctuary (The Ka’ba)
  • Mecca was on a major trade route and this meant that there was a steady flow of pilgrims.

He was orphaned at 6

  • … brought up by his grandfather, and then his uncle Abu Talib.
  • Went to work for a wealthy merchant woman named Khadija when he was a young man, and they eventually married.
  • Tradition holds that Muhammad married at least nine other women, but remained faithful to Khadija who bore him seven children (including three sons who died in infancy).

At about age 40 (in 610CE) Muhammad started regular retreats in a cave near Mt Hira, near Mecca, where after a period of meditation, he received his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel.

“Recite, in the name of your Lord, who created.
He created man from an embryo.
Recite, and your Lord, Most Exalted.
Teaches by means of the pen.
He teaches man what he never knew.” [Q96:1-5]


Khadija accepted his message immediately, as did his uncle’s son Ali,

  • eventually it spread beyond the confines of his family and Mecca and was proclaimed openly.
  • the new religion professed by Muhammad happily coexisted with the current pagan religions, until Muhammad denounced the pagan deities to the outrage of the Meccan authorities

Growing hostilities meant that Muhammad had to send some of his new followers to neighbouring Ethiopia, where they were protected by the Christian ruler

  • those remaining in Mecca were subjected to a boycott aimed at excluding them from commercial life…
  • then Abu Talib (uncle) and Khadija died in the same year.
  • Deprived of his protection and confidant, Muhammad and his followers made the Hijra, or emigration (275 miles north ), to Yathrib, following an invitation from a delegation seeking Muhammad’s assistance as mediator between three feuding Jewish tribes.
  • Yathrib was eventually renamed Medina (the City of the Prophet), and the Islamic calendar (which is lunar) officially begins here, at 622CE, making this year 1432AH.

I won’t go into any of the events that happened in Medina, as that would take all day… but suffice to say there were raids on caravans, battles with armies from Mecca, disagreements with the current inhabitants, mutual influence between the Jews and Muslims, amongst other things…

Eventually, after a few more or less successful attempts at negotiation, Muhammad led a band of followers back to Mecca in 630 (the Umra, or lesser pilgrimage),

  • takes the city against little show of resistance,
  • circumambulating (ritually walking around) the Ka’ba
  • destroying the 360 idols therein sparing only the two icons of Jesus and Mary.
  • Within the following two years, before his death, the Muslim Umma (community) became the dominant force in the Arabian peninsula.
  • Muhammad performed the “Pilgrimage of Farewell” (which became the Hajj we know today) then he dies unexpectedly in the arms of his “favourite” wife, Aisha, then aged 18.

Early expansion

Early expansion of the Islamic Empire

Of course, early expansion must not be equated with mass conversion, which only happened much later…

Just before his death, Muhammad had planned to send an expedition into Roman territory in Palestine… this set in motion the events that led to rapid expansion of the Islamic empire…

“Within a century of the Prophet Muhammad’s death, Muslims governed throughout the Middle East and North Africa as far west as the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal). In the east there were Muslim outposts in the Indus valley (northwest India) and expeditions reached as far as the great wall of China.” (David Waines)

What was quite a shock to me, was that Spain was ruled by an Islamic power from 711-1492.

The Split into Sunni and Shi’i

The 4 rightly guided caliphs:

  • Abu Bakr (r. 632-634)
  • Umar (634-644)
  • Uthman (644-656)
  • Ali (656-661)

Following Muhammad’s death, his close companion (and father of Aisha), Abu Bakr, is elected as his successor and designated “Caliph”. The claims of Ali – Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law – are ignored on this, and two subsequent occasions. Supporters of Ali were called his Partisans (Shi’a)… when he succeeded to the Caliphate he was not successful in maintaining control and he was eventually assassinated. The Shi’is then dispute the Sunni Caliphate as it continued, following Ali’s line and designating them Imams.

“In the sacred history of Shi’ism, each Imam in turn is secretly murdered – usually by poisoning. Eventually the Twelfth Imam, Muhammad al Muntazar – the Awaited One – disappears altogether. He will return at the end of time as the Messiah (al-Mahdi) to bring peace, justice and unity to a world torn by corruption, division and strife.” (Malise Ruthven)

On a side-note, there is quite an amusingly bad film entitled “Khartoum” set in Sudan, late c.19th starring Charlton Heston, as General Gordon, and a boot polished up Lawrence Olivier as the Sudanese Mahdi.

The Poster for “Khartoum”

The Shi’ism discussed thus far is the majority Twelver or Imami Shi’ism

There also others known as Isma’ilis, or Seveners, who claim allegiance to Isma’il, the eldest son of Imam Jaf’ar, who Twelvers believe to have predeceased his father.

And there are also many other smaller groups

Key Beliefs and Practices

The Qur’an

Generally accepted that Muhammad began to collect the Qur’an together before his death but it was not completed until 20 or so years later under Uthman.

114 independent units of varying lengths called suras

Each sura begins with the formula “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”

After the first sura they are arranged in roughly descending order of length

Generally taken that everything which refers to the communities and generations of the past, or establishing the credentials of the Prophet, was revealed at Mecca. Duties and norms of behaviour from Medina…

Qur’an as inimitable:

“If men and genies banded together to produce the likes of this Qur’an, they would not produce its like, not though they backed one another.” (Q17:88)

That it is in Arabic is seen of great importance:

A section of the Qur’an in Arabic

“Some religions, like Buddhism, take to scriptural translation like ducks to water. The Buddha, we are told, ‘can express everything he wishes in any language whatever’, and not only that, he ‘speaks them all at once’. But such linguistic indifference was not a feature of Islam. The Qur’an was destined to remain as it had been revealed.” (Michael Cook)

“We have sent it down in an Arabic Qur’an; haply you will understand” (Q12:2)

“Non-Arabic isn’t Arabic, so it’s not Qur’an.” (Ibn Hazm, d. 1064)

At the time written Arabic was largely used as an aid to memory, with no system of vowel signs or diacritical marks…. In the 10th century a system of 7 canonical readings was established with one of these becoming prevalent throughout the whole Islamic world, the Egyptian Standard Edition, issued under the authority of the King of Egypt in 1923/4.

And now for some highly generalised practical implications of the sanctity of the Qur’anic codex:

Reading the Qur’an in a Mosque

  • See how the Qur’an is usually sat on a chair when being read in the mosque.
  • in a state of ritual impurity a Muslim should not touch the Qur’an.
  • Unbelievers, accordingly, should never touch the Qur’an according to the majority view.
  • Thus Muslim warriors were prohibited from taking copies of the book on raids into non-Muslim territory; these copies might fall into the hands of the unbelievers, and thus be defiled.
  • However, one eighth-century scholar is said to have allowed the ritually impure to touch the margins of a copy of the Qur’an,
  • Another early Muslim had no qualms about sending his non-Muslim slave to fetch a Qur’an which was enclosed in its protective wrapping
  • Coins also provided a worry… as did the scribbling of children learning to write with passages of the Qur’an

Generally taken that the Fatiha (“The Opening”) contains, in a condensed form, all the fundamental principles laid down in the Qur’an:

In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those who have received your grace;
not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.
Amen. (Q1:1-7)

Identifying what the Qur’an is talking about is difficult without information on context. According to Michael Cook, without tradition we would probably be able to infer that the protagonist was Muhammad, in western Arabia, and that there was a problem with this revelation being accepted by his contemporaries. No indication that the sanctuary is in Mecca, that Muhammad came from there, or that he established himself in Yathrib… These indications come from traditions… the “Hadith”.


Hadith are much more important than the tiny mention they shall get here…

  • Isnads are the name given to the chain of transmission assigned to a Hadith. Essentially they run something like Person D heard from Person C who heard from Person B who heard from Person A who was a companion of the Prophet. The more trustworthy these individuals are deemed to be, amongst other considerations, determines how “sound” the Hadith is deemed to be.
  • Hadith can be on any number of things…
  • You’ll see plenty of examples in the following sections

“Six collections came to acquire canonical status with two of these – the sahihain or “two sound ones” of al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim [ibn al-hajjaj] (d. 875) – considered as second in importance only to the Qur’an” (Malise Ruthven)

The Five Pillars

Shahada (Declaration of Faith)

  • The minimum requirement for being designated a Muslim: “There is no God but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”
  • To this Shi’is add: “Ali is the friend of God”

Salat (Prayer/Worship)

  • Involves ritual prostration… actions as important as mental activity
  • 5x a day: dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, evening
  • However this does not meant that they happen at these times, but at intervening periods between each… i.e. the noon salat happens from when the sun has reached its zenith until it is halfway down
  • Ritual Purity important… minor and major ablutions. Some legal authorities say one ablution at the start of the day works for all 5…
  • Facing the direction of Mecca (for the first year it was Jerusalem)
  • Men in front of women
  • Public prayer on a Friday at the Mosque usually with a sermon from the Imam. However Friday is not considered a “holy” day… it seems it was just the market day in Medina at the time of the Prophet…

Zakat (Compulsory Charity)

  • In Q2:219 , in response to the question “How much do we pay?” the Qur’an simply states “The surplus!” i.e. what you do not need…
  • Intended for the poor and needy
  • Used to be collected and distributed by the government but now it is generally left up to individual discretion

Sawm (Fasting during Ramadan)

  • Ramadan is the 9th Month of the Islamic Lunar Calendar
  • Only during daylight hours
  • Includes eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity
  • Begins at dawn and ends at sunset
  • The breaking of the fast meal encouraged as a great source of joy and celebration and there are frequent family and community get togethers
  • It became customary for Muslims to try and read the Qur’an during Ramadan, with many editions being printed divided into 30 equal sections…

Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca)

Devotees attending the Hajj

  • It would be very possible to have an entire book  just on the Hajj
  • Required on every adult Muslim at least once in his or her life
  • Malise Ruthven “In the past Muslims from far-flung regions would spend the best part of a lifetime on the journey, working their way across Africa or Asia to reach the Holy City. In their return they enjoyed the honoured status of Hajji – one who had made the pilgrimage.”
  • Nowadays transport has made the whole thing much easier, and the Saudi authorities have to put limits on the numbers who can attend…
  • Involves :
    • The Tawaf – circumambulation of the Ka’ba
    • The Sa’I – Sevenfold running between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa (incidentally this is now down through an airconditioned gallery)
    • The Standing the in the plain of Arafat
    • The ‘Onrush’ through the narrow defile of Muzdalifa
    • The ‘Stoning’ of the three pillars representing the devil
    • The sacrifice of an animal at Mina (which is now done in hygienic abattoirs with pilgrims obtaining sheep certificates, and the meat being frozen for feeding the poor).

Key Doctrinal Differences between Islam and Christianity

Many similarities:

  • Adam remains the common ancestor of humanity and is expelled from Paradise for eating the forbidden fruit
  • Noah is the builder of the ark whose occupants survive when God destroys the human race
  • Abraham still nearly sacrifices his son to God
  • Moses confronts Pharaoh, leads the exodus from Egypt, encounters God on Sinai and receives scripture…
  • Revelation
  • Authoritative Text
  • Centrality of Community

Unity of God

“Tawhid” – making one, unicity…

Islamic perception of Christian tritheism…

“Say not “Three”, refrain; better is it for you. God is only One God” (Q4:171)

“They are unbelievers who say “God is the Third of Three.” No God is there but One God.” (Q5:76)

However, by this time the doctrine of the Trinity hadn’t been fully established, and there are well known difficulties to formulating certain Greek concepts in Arabic.

Jesus’ Crucifixion and Divinity

Jesus seen as Messiah, born of a virgin, carried out a ministry throughout Israel, performed miracles, was rejected by the Jews and raised up to heaven by God.

“And when the son of Mary is cited as an example, behold, thy people turn away from it and say, ‘What, are our gods better, or he?’ They cite not him to thee save to dispute; nay but they are a people contentious. He is only a servant we blessed, and We made him to be an example to the Children of Israel.” (Q43:57-59)

Here the Qur’an is explaining Jesus to the polytheists of Mecca… firstly he is a human servant, not divine… and secondly he is more important than they can imagine.

A Prophet of such high standing suffering such a humiliating death is incomprehensible…

  • Q4:156-8: “yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that was shown to them […] and they slew him not of a certainty – no indeed; God raised him up to him.”
  • The traditional interpretation is that someone else died on the Cross (perhaps Judas)…
  • A more modern interpretation is that the Qur’anic account denies the Jews responsibility for Jesus’ death.

No original sin/atonement

“The most significant theological difference in terms of the historical development of Islam is the treatment of the Fall. Satan is punished for his refusal to bow down before Adam; and though Adam sins, as in the biblical story, by eating of the forbidden fruit, he repents and is soon restored to favour as God’s deputy or vice-regent, the first prophet in the line of prophets that culminates in Muhammad. There is no doctrine of original sin here, no idea of vicarious atonement. Where there is no original sin, there is no redeemer…” (Malise Ruthven)

Those whose good deeds outweigh bad will go to Paradise and vice versa…

  • possibly down to different emphases: belief versus practice? orthodoxy versus orthopraxy?
  • But this strikes me as much too simplistic

Some verses seem to suggest that once God has sent his guidance it is up to humans to decide how to respond:

“Say: The truth is from your Lord; so let whosoever will believe, and whosoever will disbelieve.” (Q18:29)

But others indicate that the choice is God’s:

“As for the unbelievers, alike it is to them whether thou hast warned them or hast not warned them, they do not believe. God has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes a covering, and there awaits them a mighty chastisement.” (Q2:6-7)

Of course this is all very general, and there will be many more differences that I could have noted… but I hope this has given you a flavour of the nuances of the relationships between these two great religions…

Contemporary Issues

Shari’a Law and Fatwas

This is going to seem very much like I am supporting Shari’a Law… that is not my intention. However, there are a lot of unfortunate stereotypes, mostly because of the Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia… and I would like to dispel some of these.

“The term Shari’a applies to much more than law in the strictly legal sense. It includes details of ritual, as well as a whole range of customs and manners, although local customary laws are also recognised. Shari’a means literally ‘the way to a watering place’: the Qur’anic use of the term suggestively combines the notions of a vital means of sustenance in this world and access to the divine realm of the world to come. The law is there both for the purpose of upholding the good of society and for helping human beings attain salvation. Interpretations of the law may vary in accordance with time and place, but the Shari’a itself is considered to be a timeless manifestation of the will of God, subject neither to history nor circumstance.” (Malise Ruthven)

Thus, Knut Vikor can write:

  • “There is no such thing as a, that is one Islamic law”
  • Younger modern Muslim scholars: Shari’a “is a name for the divine will as only God knows it, an abstract divine law only perceived by Him.”

In theory Shari’a comes from the Qur’an, but there are 6200 verses in the Qur’an – only 350-500 legally relevant, and only approx. 30 specify crime/punishment.

Fiqh (jurisprudence)

  • = science of formulating the law (Vikor)
  • = thinking about the law
  • Faqiha (to understand)
  • Faqih (jurist/theologian) Fuqaha (plural)
  • “What we find in the fiqh texts is the jurists’ approximation to the divine law” (Rudolph Peters)
  • Its four roots, in order of precedence, are:
    • the Qur’an,
    • the traditions of the prophet
    • consensus
    • and analogical reasoning

As if matters weren’t complicated enough, there are numerous Legal Schools (Madhabs) such as the  Hanbali, Hanafi, Shafi’I and Maliki schools amongst the Sunnis, named after eponymous founders.

A rough map of Madhab locations

  • Shafi’I’s domininant in lower Egypt, Syria, southern India, Indonesia and Malaysia
  • Hanafis in Turkey, northern India, Pakistan, central Asia and China
  • Malikis in Saharan Africa, upper Egypt and North Africa
  • Hanbalis in Saudi Arabia

Malikis rely more on the Sunna… Hanafis on analogy resulting in a generally more lenient stance

What is a Fatwa?

  • “Legal Decision”/”Verdict”
  • Al-Shatibi: “A reply to a legal question given by a legal expert in the form of words, action or approval.”
  • Only statements  of principle and in theory a fatwa has no validity beyond the moment it was expressed (Vikor)

An example: wine or whisky? from Burhan al Din al-Marghinani (d. 1197), Al-Hidaya, trans. Charles Hamiltion. A Hanafi faqih… Hanafi position generally that beer, whisky and vodka are permitted although all forms of grape alcohol are forbidden…

“The first of these [forbidden beverages] is khamr [wine] meaning, according to Abu Hanifa, the juice of the grape fermented… Others maintain that khamr is applicable to whatever is of an inebriating quality, because it is mentioned in the traditions that “Whatever inebriates is khamr” and in another tradition “Khamr is produced from two plants, namely the vine and the date palm…” Khamr is in itself unlawful whether it be used… even in so small a quantity as not to be sufficient to intoxicate; yet the same law does not apply to things of an inebriating quality, for a little of them, if not sufficient to intoxicate, is not forbidden… Whoever maintains khamr to be lawful is an infidel (and exposed to the penalty for apostasy) for he rejects incontestable proof.

“… Whoever drinks khamr incurs punishment even if he is not intoxicated, for it is said in the Traditions “Let him who drinks khamr be whipped, and if he drinks it again, let him be punished again in the same manner.”

“Liquor produced by means of honey, wheat, barley or millet is lawful, according to Abu Hanifa and Abu Yusuf (his most distinguished disciple) although it be not boiled, provided it be not drunk in a wanton manner. The argument they adduce is the Hadith “Khamr is the product of these two trees” (meaning the vine and the date palm)… It has likewise been disputed whether a person who gets drunk with any of these liquors is to be punished.”

Shari’a Law in the UK?

Rowan Williams, “Civil and Religious Law in England: A Religious Perspective”, Public Lecture, 6 February 2008. You’ll have heard the BBC on this…

Cites Tariq Ramadan: “It has reached the extent that many Muslim intellectuals do not dare even to refer to [Shari’a] for fear of frightening people or arousing suspicion of all their work by the mere mention of the word.”

For Williams, “Law of the land takes no account of what might be for certain agents a proper rationale for behaviour.”

However, secular lawyers must be aware of what to treat as real and serious and what is grounded in nuisance and ignorance

And he is quite clear that “No supplementary jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights.”

He attacks our Western notion of Legal Universalism as a bad thing:

  • Secular law should not seek to dissolve religion, custom and habit
  • But should “monitor such affiliations to prevent the creation of mutually isolated communities in which human liberties are seen in incompatible ways and individual persons are subjected to restraints or injustices for which there is no public redress.”

“Clearly the refusal of a religious believer to act upon the legal recognition of a right is not, given the plural character of society, a denial to anyone inside or outside the community of access to that right.”

How this would be implemented or enforced is another issue… however, Williams illustrates the complexities of the issues involved in implementing an “Islamic” Law in a non-Islamic context… it is not a simple of matter of letting people get on with it… and neither is it acceptable for “us” to demand that human beings conform to “our” understanding of what is immutable law…

(Tariq Ramadan) Shari’a teaches that Islam rests on the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the state of the world/society.

“To apply Shari’a for Muslim citizens or residents in the West means explicitly to respect the legal and constitutional framework of the country of which they are citizens.”

Of course there are extremists… and in many ways these are the people who make a fuss about implementing Shari’a… but these voices should not drown out more moderate voices.

If you are interested in further discussion on the nature of Shari’a, please see my other post “Shari’a Law: Where does it come from?“.

Violence and Jihad

What is Jihad?

  • Rudolph Peters: Jihad = to strive, to exert oneself, to struggle
  • Bukhari: Greater Jihad is “for the servant of God to fight his passions.”
  • Jihad is a collective obligation. Indeed if there is an army, others are not permitted to participate! Q9:122 – “It is not for the believers to go forth totally”
  • Notions of Jihad were developed within the context of the expansion of a single Islamic state…
  • There is no valid Jihad in Twelver Shi’ism since the occultation of 873…
  • Peters: Jihad functions to motivate to war, to enhance a ruler’s legitimacy and to define the rules for the relationship with unbelieving enemies during war…
  • Therefore it is clearly difficult to apply the notions of Jihad to the modern day…

Elements in support of aggression:

Q4:95 – “[Those of the believers who stay at home while suffering from no injury are not equal to] those who fight in the cause of God with their possessions and nafs (soul/person).”

Q8:39 – “Fight them until there is no [discord] and the religion is God’s entirely.”

Q9:5 [Sword Verse] – “Then when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush.”

Q9:29 – “Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and his Messenger has forbidden… until they pay the tribute out of hand and have been humbled.”

Malik (founder of Maliki school):

  • According to the Prophet, the best person is “a man who takes the reign of his horse to do jihad in the way of Allah.”
  • Malik: “Being killed in the way of Allah has no like”

However, it is just as easy to find anti-aggressive elements:

Q2:190 – “And fight in the way of God with those who fight you, but transgress/aggress not.”

  • What is fighting in the way of God?

Q9:12 – “But if they break their oaths after their covenant/treaty and thrust at your religion, then fight the leaders of unbelief.”

  • treaties being mentioned is significant
  • only fighting the leaders…
  • Peters: “It is not clear whether the Qur’an allows Muslims to fight the unbelievers only as a defence against aggression or under all circumstances.”

Q8:61 [Peace Verse] – “And if they incline to peace, do thou incline to it”

The Hadith, although not as important as the Qur’an, has plenty of material.

  • Invite your enemies to embrace Islam, pay the jizya or fight…
  • “Do not desire an encounter with the enemy, but when you do encounter them be firm.”
  • Prophet “forbade the killing of women and children”

How does this all relate to contemporary terrorism?

Context: Of course there are many motivations, but the biggest thing I think to remember is that:

“Throughout [the nineteenth, and well into the twentieth century] European colonialists managed to occupy or directly influence almost the entire Islamic world. Of the three great medieval Muslim empires, the Ottoman and Moghul were totally dismembered; only Iran emerged relatively intact but subject nevertheless to pressure from both Britain and Russia. Muslim inhabited territories in sub-Saharan Africa and in modern day Malaysia and Indonesia also fell under European control.” (David Waines)

Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d.1898) was able to declare that since the British did not interfere with the practising of Islam, jihad against them was not allowed. However, Muhammed Abduh and Rashid Rida, though sincerely believing that Jihad is only allowed in response to aggression,  defined the colonial activities as acts of aggression…

Osama Bin Laden’s “Declaration of War Against the Americans” (1998):

  • Makes extreme use of the “Sword Verse”
  • And the Hadith: “I have been sent with the sword between my hands to ensure that no one but God is worshipped.”
  • He believes that killing Americans is an individual duty in accordance with “and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together” and “fight them until there is no more tumult and oppression”

Darul Uloom Deoband’s Fatwa Against Terrorism (2008) [Very influential India-based group of scholars]:

  • Focuses on Q5:56 – “Do not spread discord on earth.”
  • The believe that the Qur’an clearly states that the killing of one innocent is equivalent to the massacre of all human kind (plus the reverse situation…)
  • And that a basic principle of Islam not to cooperate with those spreading sin and oppression.

And in 2001, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a very influential Qatar based legal scholar, along with some others issued a fatwa against terrorism, and on the  right of Muslims to fight in US Army, in response to a question from a Muslim Captain in the US Army in the aftermath of 9/11.

  • Re. terrorism: Q5:33-4 – “The recompense of those who wage war against God and his Messenger or do mischief on earth is only that they shall be killed…” (This can clearly be used to support the opposing side).
  • And, regarding fighting in the US Army… Q64:!6 – “And keep your duty to God as much as you can”
  • Muslim soldiers should only request to serve on the back lines if this does not call loyalty into question.
  • The assumption that neither the lives nor faith of Muslims in the USA is threatened.
  • “Aman [safe conduct] requires that Muslims residing in a non-Muslim land not knowingly commit acts detrimental to the host country…; and that Muslims should always fulfil the terms of their contracts with non-Muslims.”
  • Choosing the lesser of two harms “regarded by Muslim jurisprudents as one of the secondary rules of Islamic legal theory.”
  • Interpretive authority of fatwa lies in their use of Bukhari: “Acts are judged according to the intentions behind them.”

And of course there is the opposing position:

  • Al-Shu’aybi: “Any Muslim who takes the side of the unbelievers in their war against Muslims is himself an apostate and unbeliever.”
  • But despite criticism of the fatwa, no criticism has been levelled at al-Qaradawi et al.

Also, the BBC recently (2 March, 2010) reported on a 600 page fatwa by the influential Pakistani Jurist Tahir ul-Qadri against terrorism and suicide bombing.

“They [terrorists] can’t claim that their suicide bombings are martyrdom operations and that they become the heroes of the Muslim Umma. No, they become heroes of hellfire, and they are leading towards hellfire,” he said.
“There is no place for any martyrdom and their act is never, ever to be considered jihad.”

As I alluded to before, there is no obligation on any Muslim to accept any fatwa… they are just legal opinions. Fatwas can be issued in favour of terrorism, of war, or demanding the death of Salman Rushdie… just as they can be issued opposing terrorism, extolling the virtues of the West, and advising on mundane personal issues…

A VERY illuminating article was published on January 28 2010 entitled Europol Report: All Terrorists are Muslims…Except the 99.6% that Aren’t is something I would recommend that everyone take the time to read. It demonstrates that the right-wing propaganda regarding “All terrorists being Muslims” is vastly different from the evidence that we have to date, both in the European Union, and the USA.

I hope that in this issue, as in all others, I have demonstrated that the true picture is much more nuanced and multifaceted than the media would have you believe. As in all religions, and indeed all worldviews, there will always be extremes… I think it is the duty of people like you and I to ensure that these extremes are not the only voices that are heard. I hope this whirlwind post will have helped in some way with this goal, and has given you some food for thought…

I know there will have been many generalisations here, and that I have maybe said some things that some people may find offensive or inaccurate. Please do let me know and we can get some discussion on the go!

Other worthwhile articles (last updated 12/05/2011 – I should do this more often):

Explaining Islam to the Public by Edward E. Curtis IV

Burkas, Bin Bags and Bans by “fandabidozi”

Understanding the Muslim world by Mark LeVine

And a surprisingly informative article from Cracked.com:5 Ridiculous Things You Probably Believe About Islam by Jacopo della Querci.