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Qur’an: three brother faiths

Posted on 28 October 2010, 4:51

Why I’m reading the Qur’an

Qur’an sura 2

In the weeks since I decided to start reading Islam’s holy book, I’ve been slow to make progress. It’s partly because the opening suras (chapters) are the longest and look more daunting than the smaller ones at the back – but at least I’m now deep into sura 2, which is entitled The Cow.

One of the trivial things I like very much about the Qur’an is the chapter titles, which are short and inviting. Casting an eye down the contents page, I’m intrigued by The Spider, Smoke, Rolling Sands and Enfolded, all of them titles, and find myself looking forward to reading them.

The Cow has been heavy going, though, with a great deal of talk about blasphemers and unbelievers and the horrible fate which awaits them. At first I was overwhelmed by the violent storminess of these negative verses, until I began to find my sea legs. That happened when I started to notice a nuanced attitude to Christians and Jews. Some passages are very generous, for example…

As for the believers, for the Jews, the Christians and the Sabeans who believe in God and the Last Day, and who do righteous deeds – these have their wages with their Lord. No fear shall fall upon them, not shall they grieve (sura 2:62).

Other passages offer strongly worded criticism of the other faiths’ refusal to accept Muhammad as the promised prophet of God. In this next quote, for example, the writer sketches the story of the Jewish prophets in a sentence, beginning with Moses and ending with Jesus (who is called ‘son of Mary’ as a way of stressing his humanity and denying his divinity)...

We revealed the Book to Moses, and We sent after him messengers in succession; and We granted Jesus son of Mary evident miracles and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit… (sura 2:87).

But when Muhammad came – the passage continues – preaching a message which confirmed what the Jewish people had already received, they refused to accept it. Why? Because Muhammad was not one of them. To my eyes, these verses are full of hurt as well as anger – the hurt of unfair rejection. They remind me of the hurt and irony expressed in John’s Gospel about the coming of Jesus: ‘He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him’ (John 1:11).

Because of the chronology, the New Testament has to talk about the Jewish people and how it sees them. And the Qur’an, which comes even later than the New Testament, has to talk about both the Jews and the Christians. As the youngest brother of the three faiths, it is very aware of them both: loving these older siblings for what it has received from them; hating them for where they have gone astray. It’s very much a family thing, in the Middle Eastern way.

Quotes are from the 2008 translation of The Qur’an by Tarif Khalidi, published by Penguin.

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I got exactly that feeling of kinship when I worked with a Muslim imam in chaplaincy. He was (of course) always happy to talk about faith, not just his own faith but mine, but always from a point of view of tellng me where we Christians had got it a bit wrong.

I remember getting quite excited when he told me that our Gospels are a corruption of the one true gospel that Islam follows, and asked where I could read it – but of course there is no extant version.

Pam Smith, Thu 28 Oct, 13:52

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