Some observations on charges of “hate” in the Quran

I’ve been known to criticize Wahhabis, but there’s one thing they get a bum rap on, this furor over the "hate" of the "Noble" translation (the English translation now distributed by Wahhabis).  It explicitly links the last two verses of Al-Fatihah (i.e., the first chapter of the Quran) with Jews and Christians:

Guide us to the Straight Way.
The Way of those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace, not (the way) of
those who earned Your Anger (such as the Jews), nor those who went astray
(such as the Christians).

The problem with the Noble translation is that it is brimming with rigid literalism and narrowmindedness, not hatred.

As critical as I am of Wahhabism as a Muslim, I find this charge grossly unfair and misinformed.  Clearly, a new form of political correctness and post-9/11 hysteria are distorting the discussion of what should be an uncontroversial doctrinal point.

First, it has to be acknowledged that the translator here did not distort the text, so much as add a parenthetical comment. 

Second, that parenthetical comment reflects one of the standard interpretations among Muslim scholars.  There is nothing particularly "Wahhabi" about it.  In fact, most other translations will make the exact same point in the footnotes (which is preferable, I think). 

Third, all the Western religious traditions view themselves as superceding the message of their predecessors and/or competitors.  Is is surprising to see one criticizing the beliefs of other religious traditions?

Fourth, in light of the Muslim view of religious history as a series of divine revelations finally culminating and being perfected in the Quran there is nothing objectionable about this interpretation, which is why it is ubiquitious among interpreters.  In fact, it is downright commonsensical, given the Islamic view of the progressive spiritual development of Mankin.  If one believes that Islam was sent by God, it follows that it is necessary for the world’s betterment.  And what is the recurring scenario is Western religious narratives?  The recipients of previous revelations from God were no longer following their guidance as God wished. 

Fifth, from a Muslim perspective the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible have very obvious examples of precisely these behaviors (i.e., going astray and incurring wrath).  The Golden Calf incident comes to mind, which so incurred God’s wrath that 3000 Levites were slaughtered on the spot.  Isaiah, Ezekiel and Hosea denounce the transgressions of the Israelites in the strongest possible terms, referring to them with language as white hot as that targeted at Sodom and Gommorah.  In the case of Christianity, there’s the belief in Christ’s divinity, which is expressly refuted in the Quran.  From a traditional Muslim persepctive, that belief violates the most sacred of God’s laws and indeed constitutes going astray in a fundamental sense.  Now, is it hateful for a Muslim to acknowledge these from conclusions–which are inescapable from a Muslim persepective–when discussing Western religious history?

Sixth and perhaps most importantly, in this matter Islam is only continuing a longstanding exegetical tradition within both Judaism and Christianity.  Not only does the Hebrew Bible contain numerous examples of the Israelites incurring God’s wrath, but this becomes the dominant theological explanation for Jewish suffering and disempowerment within
Judaism.  Jews have long interpreted hardships such as the Egyptian captivity, the destruction of the Temple, enslavement at the hands of the Assyrians, etc etc., as punishments from God for them and as examples to other nations.  In ISAIAH, the pagan Assyrian conquerors of Israel are thus referred to as "God’s rod of wrath"!  Christianity incorporated this perspective into their view of history, adding new criticisms of the Jews for being overly "legalistic" and ignorant of the true spirit of the Torah.

The only new thing being done by Muslims is that they are adding Christianity to the timeline (perhaps that is the real cause of outrage on the Christian Right). 

Christians who tar Muslims as anti-Semitic for such mundane readings of history need to explain how their comparable readings are so different in nature.  They also need to acknowledge the fact that for all their faults through the ages Muslims, unlike Christians, do have never included the incendiary and inherently demonizing charge of deicide among the Israelites’ sins.  Until quite recently, Jews were routinely accused in Christian socieities of the ultimate offense, an existential treason, of rejecting God in the form of Jesus and then killing Him.  As a result, Christian societies have sometimes displayed a neurotic compulsion to scourge the Jews, viewing their continued existence (i.e., their refusal to accept Christ, who was after all one of their own) as a reproach to Christianity and the Christian polity.  There was no notion of Jews being protected "People of the Book"–they were simply traitors, a dangerous cancer within the Christian polity.  The pot calling the kettle "anti-Semitic"…

Serious problems with anti-Semitism certainly exist in Muslim societies and need to be addressed, but this isn’t such a case.

Finally, it should be noted that there is nothing particularly "Wahhabi" about this reading.  While Sufism undoubtedly opens the door to more figurative and spiritual interpretations of scripture, there is in my opinion nothing inherently un-Sufi about the Wahhabi translation cited above.  The great Sufi thinker Ibn Arabi accepts this as the conventional reading in his tafsir (commentary) on Suratul Fatihah, and then adds an additional Sufi interpretation accordig to which these verses refer to the ways Christians and Jews (and, potentially, Muslims) ignored the inner meaning of God’s revelation to them.   

The example illustrates how distorted popular dicussions of Islamic doctrine and belief are in popular debate.  Instead of balanced, historically informed analysis that takes into account the fact that Islam partakes of the same religious narrative and worldview as Christians and Jews, we get spurious charges like this and woefully ignorant sensationalistic slogans (e.g., this 73 virgins stuff). 

It’s funny how some American conservatives become passionately politically correct and multi-cultural when Islam’s under discussion.  They unapologetically that there is no way to salvation but acceptance of Jesus Christ, yet scream with the righteous indignation of a New Age ecumenicist when they encounter similiar sentiments in the Quran.  Good old fashioned fire and brimstone preaching is only offensive when Muslims do it.

  • Leila

    true. (although I DETEST parenthetical comments) Pun intended.

  • Wellwisher

    Perhaps the words inserted into the parentheses should not have been inserted into the text in the first place. They could easily have been explained in a footnote.
    As a Muslim, although I agree with this interpretation of Maghdoob ‘alaihim and Daalleen, I found it rather unsavoury to find it slap bang in the middle of the actual translation. Let us not forget that generations of children are going to remember this translation along with the words that have been inserted, and which are NOT part of the revealed text. That somewhat spoils the purity of it for them.
    On the other hand, it is a chastening reminder to Muslims: if Allah has taught us to pray not to be like the Jews and Christians, then it implies that some of us ARE like them; being impossibly rigid and merciless in the application of rules and in the literal interpretation of prophecies, as were the Pharisees; and praying to dead saints and excorcising spirits out of sick people, as the Christians have been doing.
    Muslims should see where they stand and correct their positions before the Surah Al Fatihah stands as a witness against them.

  • Wellwisher

    An interesting point: even the translation is not, stricto sensu, absolutely correct.
    Ghairil Maghdoobi ‘alaihim does not mean “those who earned YOUR Anger”…the word YOUR does not appear in the text.
    It is merely inferred from the text.
    In the strict sense, the words mean “those who earned anger” or “those who incurred wrath”, and this can relate to God as well as to mankind.
    To God, because Jews repeatedly broke His commandments;
    To men, because by their often sly business tactics and practice of usury, they attracted the jealousy and anger of men, who time and again lashed out at them throughout their history.
    So, arguably, the word ‘Your’ should also be inserted as a parenthetic comment.

  • Irving

    It’s also interesting to note that both the wrath and astry lines are in the past tense. Does this have any significance?
    Ya Haqq!

  • Wellwisher

    You are right, Irving, to ask the question. Actually, the words in the Arabic are neither in the present nor past. Although the line preceding them is definitely in the past tense. Al-ladheena An’amta ‘alaihim means, literally, : Those on whom Thou didst bestow favours.
    So the past tense is understood and carried on to the last ligns of the Surah.
    However, that doesn’t really change the fact that these clauses can still apply to the present and future; those who have been favoured by God can be in the past or now or in the future. Whenever one sees them, they will have already been favoured, hence the past tense. The same applies to the other two expressions of Maghdoob and Daalleen.

  • Isa

    I agree that the translation is not wrong even if it is somewhat misleading. A large part of why it is misleading however is our own fault.
    There is a hadith in which the Prophet says this very thing (that it is the Christians and Jews respectively), but the issue I have is that people just take that as a battering ram to bash Christians and Jews with. But what the Prophet was trying to warn us of was two spiritual diseases which is inherent in stereotypical Christian and Jewish archetypes. It bears saying again that these are archetypes, not something in every person of these groups you meet.
    These diseases are the archetype of the Rabbi who spends his life finding faults in others on one hand and the Christian who has become deluded into thinking that God loves them so much that he would never punish them so that they do whatever they want. It is the extremes of complete exoterism versus extreme esoterism.
    We should always remind ourselves as our pious predecessors warned us that when Allah mentions the evil traits of Pharoah we should look for and see those traits of Pharoah in ourselves. We do not look for those who have become astray or earned the wrath of God in the Jews and Christians, but we look for those characteristics in ourselves because in the end we are not going to be asked about them.

  • Evergreen

    My understanding of the message of the Quran is that it focuses on uniting the Abrahamic traditions under a more modern and universal message. Some of the old Jewish law was discarded as no longer relevant to contemporary life, and Christians and Jews were early allies and role models.
    It was, first and foremost, a reaction against paganism (religion that had degenerated to become mere acts and idols with no inner belief or meaning) and materialism (worship of wealth and worldly leaders). It did this, first and foremost, by picking up and carrying the spiritual banner of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many other prophets alluded to but not named (because they were not known in that place and time).
    I don’t understand how modern people describing themselves as Muslims could be so hostile to people of the book. Some forms of Zionism are aberrant because they emphasize ethnicity and power over God’s message as it is retained in the Jewish tradition. Some might say that the rabid anti-Semitism and rabid anti-Arabism are from the Deceiver and should be avoided.
    This narrow Quranic interpretation you quote also encourages people to ignore God’s message and instead engage in sectarian hatred. “Those who have earned God’s anger” and “those who went astray” means exactly that from God’s point of view, not from narrowly human (sectarian) points of view.
    Islam is important because it does preserve God’s word in the broad sense in the modern world. To make God’s word sent to mankind as an act of divine mercy into sectarian pettiness. The best way for Muslims (people who submit to God) to battle irreligion or corrupted religion is to stand firm themselves as a good example.

  • Wellwisher

    Evergreen, I understand your sentiments when you write: “This narrow Quranic interpretation you quote also encourages people to ignore God’s message and instead engage in sectarian hatred.”
    The interpretation is valid, and it is not an encouragement to engage in sectarian hatred; what people read in it depends largely on the people themselves – if they are disposed towards evil, they will engage in sectarian hatred.
    Good people who wish to reform themselves, however, will read in this interpretation an admonition from God to the effect that believers should learn from the mistakes committed by peoples of the past.
    There are numerous verses inviting people to do just that in the Holy Qur’an. That does not mean that ALL people of the Book are bad, and the Qur’an clarifies this point too.
    But that does not detract from the fact that the rigidity shown by Jews attracted God’s punishment time and time again – a fact that the Bible bears witness to – and prevented them from accepting their Messiah. And it is also a fact that Christians have turned Jesus, his mother, and a host of saints into objects of worship to whom they pray.
    God does not wish Muslims to hate Jews and Christians, but He wants us to hate the reprehensible deeds these two religious peoples committed in the past, and are still committing today.
    Hence the prayer taught to us in Surah Al-Fatihah.
    So, misguided ones may well think that the message is to hate the People of the Book themselves. The others will understand that the message is to hate the MISDEEDS of the People of the Book and not the people themselves.
    Maybe that’s why the Qur’an says it is: Hudal-lil-muttaqeen “a guidance for the righteous (God-fearing)”. The unrighteous will not derive guidance from it.