Some observations on charges of “hate” in the Quran

Some observations on charges of “hate” in the Quran January 12, 2007

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.

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