Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Is the Quran a "hate-filled" book?

Much has been made about recent comments by Bill Maher about the Quran being a "hate-filled" book that promotes terrorism. In light of that, I thought I'd discuss my understanding of and experience with the Quran.

In preparation for moving to the Arab world, I've made it a point to read the Quran in English, and certain passages in Arabic. I've especially devoted my Arabic reading to understanding what it says about Jesus. I plan on talking to Muslims about him, so it's important to understand their starting point, and read their book in their own language.

The Quran says a lot of good things about Jesus, and teaches Muslims to consider him among the greatest prophets. It does teach some things contrary to the Biblical Jesus -some of those things being very important roadblocks to salvation. The Jesus of the Quran is not our Jesus, but what might be called a hint of him.

I met last week with a Muslim friend and during the course of conversation asked him if he could tell me something Jesus said from the Quran. The Quran doesn't contain much in the way of what Jesus actually said, so he was unable to come up with anything.

I told him that the Anjil (Gospel) has lots of things that Jesus said, and he was glad for me to tell him some of it. Even if the Quran has nothing else in its favor, it opens the door to discuss the Jesus of the New Testament. Let American Christians not forget that in their haste to heap ridicule on it and burn copies of it.

"Hate-filled" (Bill Maher's term) isn't a valid descriptor, because the book is devoted to many topics, from things like social justice to the nature of God. In this, it is not completely unlike the Bible, which also contains these elements, even if in different proportion. The most common element in my reading of it is an almost constant repetition of some form of "woe to those who reject Allah, and blessing to those who follow his teaching." It's actually quite tedious at points in that regard.

What sets apart the Quran, really, is how it's interpreted. The idea of "abrogation" is central to understanding how Muslim scholars interpret the Quran.

In Christianity, and to the best of my knowledge Judaism, when two or more scriptures say differing (or even seemingly contradictory) things, an attempt is made to reconcile them. Judaism has an idea of "greater" or "lesser" scriptures in the sense of priority.

Islam deals with this through "abrogation" -simply tossing one of them out. The rule is that a verse which was given later supersedes an earlier verse. It's complicated by the fact that the Quran is not arranged chronologically, but rather by chapter length (for the most part). Even within chapters, material was added at later times. This requires the scholar to know the time of origin of each individual verse in order to properly "abrogate".

Generally, the earlier passages of tolerance were given while Muhammad was living in Mecca. He was looking to reach out to Christians and Jews. When he and his followers began to be persecuted, he enjoyed the support of Christians, including a Christian Kingdom (in Ethiopia I believe) which took in and protected a large number of his followers.

The Medina passages were given later, when he was in a position of power and influence. They are more the language of an aspiring conqueror. Doctrinally, these passages "abrogate" the earlier and more tolerant ones.

"Moderate Muslims" are those who look into the Quran and read those passages of peace. They must reject the doctrine of abrogation in order to do this. Those scholars who hold to the doctrine of abrogation are tied into the later and much more militant passages.

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