Muslim and Non-Muslim Relations
Reflections on Some Qur'anic Texts*
By: Jamal Badawi, PhD April, 05, 2005.
Humanity lives today in a “global village,” where no people or nation can live in isolation from and indifferent to what goes on elsewhere. Our world is so interdependent and so interrelated that peaceful dialogue has become an imperative. In spite of the general erosion of commitment to “religion,” however interpreted or misinterpreted, religion still plays a pivotal role in shaping people’s attitudes and influencing their behavior. In spite of serious instances of abuse of various religions by some of their claimed followers so as to justify or instigate acts of brutality and bloodshed, there are positive and helpful common themes in these religions. Therefore, peaceful and candid intra-faith and inter-faith dialogues are important tools in working for such goals. This paper is a humble contribution to that dialogue from one perspective within a major world religion that is the professed faith of nearly one fifth of the human race; one that is more misunderstood than any other faith, sometimes, even, by some of its followers.
This paper examines the nature and parameters of the normative relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is based mainly on an attempt to understand the Qur’an in its own textual and historical context. To do this, it is necessary to begin with the methodology and assumptions that underpin the paper..
The basic methodology and assumptions of this paper are summed up as follows:
As a religious faith, normative Islam is not identical with the actions of its “followers.” Like other religions, followers or claimed followers are imperfect, fallible human beings. There are times when their actions conform, in various degrees, to the normative teachings of their faith. But there are also times when their actions are either independent of or even in violation of such normative teachings.
Outsiders may see these offending acts as part of the practice of faith. Sometimes, these acts are committed, falsely, in the name of faith. These claims are made as a result of ignorance, “sincere” misinterpretations, or even deliberate misrepresentations that are intended to provide sanction and authority for such acts. Examples of that include attempting to justify or explain the killing of innocent non-combatants by making out-of-context references to the Qur’an. Similarly, there are those who justify bombing abortion clinics or killing and dispossessing the Palestinian people by making selective or out-of-context references to the Bible. The history of various religious communities is replete with such aberrations, even as it is replete also with successful implementation of the norms of their faiths. Human successes or failures are not always identical with ideal norms.
To evaluate whether a given act or argument conforms to the normative teachings or not, there must be some criteria of such evaluations; how are these norms to be identified? In the case of Islam, there is no dispute about its primary sources: the Qur’an and authentic (or sound) Hadith (or Sunnah). The Qur’an, for Muslims, is God’s revelation to His Final Messenger to humankind, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). It is an imperative pillar of faith in Islam to accept the Qur’an as the verbatim word of God dictated to the Prophet by Gabriel (Jibreel), the Angel of Revelation.
Being revelation in meaning as well as exact wording, the Qur’an is regarded by Muslims as the highest and final authority in learning about Islam and its stances on various issues and queries. Hadith refer to the words, actions, and approvals of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) in matters relating to the teaching of the faith and its implementation. Hadith is similar to the Qur’an, being a form of revelation and, hence, a primary source of Islam. It is different, however, in the fact that it is a revelation in meaning only. The words of the spoken part of Hadith are the Prophet’s, not God’s.
Furthermore, the Qur’an is fully authentic as it has been meticulously preserved by being committed to memory by masses of people in addition to its preservation in writing from the very beginning. Hadith, on the other hand, may vary with respect to the degree of authenticity (soundness). As such, Hadith must be understood in the light of the Qur’an and interpreted in a way that does not contradict any established Qur’anic principle. On the other hand, Hadith also serve as elaborators, clarifiers, and explainers of the Qur’an. This means that the text of the Qur’an and relevant authentic Hadith on a given topic must be studied in an integrative manner.
Secondary sources of Islam include two generally agreed upon sources as well as debatable sources. The generally agreed upon sources are a consensus of the scholars on a given issue (ijma`), and analogical deduction (qiyas). Secondary sources are not revelatory, even though they are based on interpretations of revelatory sources. While ijma` and qiyas are more generally accepted, they are themselves dependent upon the primary sources for their authority and reasoning. Interpretations involve human judgment; they may vary and are fallible as well. This implies that a sound argument based on the Qur’an and Hadith cannot be rejected on the grounds that the opinion of a scholar is different from it or inconsistent with it. Errors of understanding and interpretations are possible and do occur. Yet errors cannot be attributed to Allah and His Revelation.
It should be noted, however, that some traditional scholarly opinions (ijtihad) may be rejected, not because of a methodological error, but because of the fact that such opinions were partly shaped by the special circumstances and historical setting of their times. Such circumstances may differ significantly from those in today’s world. In all cases, opinions are to be judged by the primary sources, not the reverse. It may be helpful to note that there is no single person or authority in Islam whose interpretation of any debatable issue is seen or accepted as the only valid one, let alone being viewed on a par with the texts of the Qur’an and Hadith.
In interpreting the primary sources of Islam, a number of essential and universal rules must be observed. They include the following:
Any claim of naskh (abrogation, or more correctly supercession) must be carefully examined. The entire Qur’an is definitively authentic (qat`i al-thubut). Any claim of naskh must be definitive, not based on mere opinion or speculation. It should be noted that earlier Muslims used the term naskh to refer also to takhsees or specifying and limiting the ruling than abrogating it.
This issue is of paramount importance, since the Muslim heritage includes writings that went into unreasonable excesses in their claims of naskh. While a few scholars claimed that hundreds of verses were abrogated, the great majority of scholars rejected these unsubstantiated claims. For example, Jalal Al-Din Al-Suyuti narrowed down the number of “abrogated” verses to 19. Other scholars, like Shah Waliyyullah Al-Dahlawi and Sobhi Al-Saleh, even narrowed them down to smaller numbers. The fact that there are legitimate disagreements about the number of abrogated verses in the Qur’an is itself an indication that some if not most of these claims are far from definitive, if not mistaken, based on strong evidence.
Guided by the above methodology, we move next to review the Qur’anic values and precepts, which represent the underpinning of Muslim/Non-Muslim relationships.