I return, for a moment, to an inspection of the quotations (and purported quotations) from the Qur’an that are included in a Facebook image or meme that was sent to me (yet again) a few days ago. They have been carefully selected (from a book that’s roughly the length of the New Testament), and in some cases deliberately distorted, to make Islam look hateful and intrinsically violent.
With all the actual problems in the world, in the Middle East, and in the realm of Islam, I confess that I simply don’t understand why anybody would want to toss more unneeded gasoline on the fire.
Right now, though, I’m going to examine a passage that offers one of the less extreme specimens.
The meme cites Koran — Qur’an — 3:85, which it gives (in quotation marks) as “Any religion other than Islam is not acceptable.”
First, though, a bit of background: The word Islam comes from the three-consonant Arabic root s-l-m, which connotes the idea of peace. It is, in fact, the same root from which the word salaam comes, which is, precisely, the Arabic equivalent of the English word peace. (The Hebrew word shalom, also meaning “peace,” derives from the equivalent Hebrew root (sh-l-m); Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages, like French and Italian or Spanish and Portuguese.) The “Form IV” Arabic verb aslama, meaning “to submit,” is also derived from that root, s-l-m. That verb’s active participle is muslim, or, if you will, Muslim — the Arabic script has no capital letters — which fundamentally means “submitter” or “one who submits.” And the verbal noun of aslama is islam (“submission”), from which is derived the name of the religion, Islam. (Again, Arabic has no capitalization.)
I’m sorry about the linguistic excursion, but it’s essential, really, for making my point here. Now, we return to Qur’an 3:85, and I offer my own translation of the verse:
And whoever seeks anything other than submission as a religion, it will not be accepted of him and, in the next life, he will be [classed] among the losers.
(You can examine the original Arabic of the verse and several translations of it here.)
Next, I offer some observations on the verse:
First, the meme’s version seems to suggest that the Qur’an is saying that Muslims should not find any religion other than Islam to be acceptable. And perhaps that’s a legitimate takeaway. But the actual verse appears to be saying that it is God who won’t accept any alternate religion.
Second, and much more important: As I’ve noted above, Arabic lacks capitalization. So should the word islam in the original Arabic of Qur’an 3:85 be rendered as the proper noun Islam — meaning a particular historical movement among the world’s religions — or should it be taken as the common noun submission?
I very much believe that it should be taken in the latter sense. (I quibble with several of the other translators on this point.) There is, so far as I’m aware, absolutely no evidence that Islam had become the name of Muhammad’s distinctive religion — nor even that anybody yet thought of Islam as a distinctive religion — during Muhammad’s lifetime, when the Qur’an was being dictated. People commonly but lazily imagine that the faith was already being called Islam, as opposed to Christianity, Buddhism, and Shinto, from the very beginning. In doing so, however, they’re merely retrojecting today’s usage into the early seventh century. But there’s no evidence to support such retrojection.
One other point: The submission that’s mentioned in Qur’an 3:85 and elsewhere in Islamic writing is always submission to the will of God. It’s never, ever, submission to an earthly tyrant or ruler, or to a religious leader. Not ever. Islamic doctrine would regard such submission to a human as blasphemous idolatry, or shirk.
So Qur’an 3:85 is simply saying that a religion that doesn’t involve submission to God and to the divine will is unacceptable to God.
Is there any serious Christian or Jew who would really disagree with that?
Thus understood, Qur’an 3:85 is scarcely the horrific thing that the compiler of the meme wants his audience to think it is.