Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Qur'an Note

I hate talking about the Qur'an. It's a hugely complicated field of inquiry, with issues ranging from the history of the text itself to debates over the accuracy of the reports of the life of Muhammad which represent its historical context to linguistic questions stemming from it's complex, archaic Arabic. However, some parts of it are relevant to the Muslim-Jewish relations issue, so I will go into a few things.

The first is Sura 9, ayat 29:
"Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allâh, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allâh and His Messenger (4) and those who acknowledge not the religion of truth (i.e. Islâm) among the people of the Scripture (Jews and Christians), until they pay the Jizyah with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."
According to the fairly standard Yusuf Ali version, this whole sura belongs to the aftermath of the Battle of Tabuk. In the Muslim tradition, which is what really matters in this context, the Byzantine Empire was becoming aware of the growing power of the Muslim state along its trade routes, and began flexing military muscle in its direction with a presumed aim of eliminating it. Exact accounts differ, but basically the Muslims marched out in a show of strength, a battle began, many of the Muslims fled, and the few who stayed won.

According to Yusuf Ali, the first 29 verses of this were proclaimed to reflect the policy of the new state following this victory. It was an aggressive policy against those who had attacked or betrayed the Muslims. At this point, again according to the Muslim tradition, there was a warlike environment in which fighting for the faith was required. Now granted, I strongly suspect that later generations of Muslims used this to justify expansionist policies, but that hardly seems the most natural interpretation - plausible perhaps within this sura, but not in the context of the Qur'an as a whole. The last clause is grammatically complicated; as Bernard Lewis noted in his book there are a bunch of different interpretations, particularly of the last word. This is also clearly a source for the later practice of jizya, something also affirmed in hadiths about Muhammad's relationship with the Jews of Khaybar, though there humiliation wasn't an issue - the aggression here seems to be entirely based on the specific conditions it is addressing.

It's also interesting when you step outside traditional Muslim interpretations and get into the question of what constituted "Islam" during Muhammad's lifetime: As Fred Donner highlighted in an article called "From Believers to Muslims," the key elements are God and Judgement Day, and it seems both grammatically and historically plausible that some Jews and Christians did meet the criteria, though I'm not ready to go as far as he did and argue that many Jews and Christians were originally considered actual Muslims. As an aside, it's also interesting that the word for fight is always qaatilu rather than a jihad relative, which only occurs in 9:16. This is a good piece of evidence for the idea that the association of jihad primarily with military striving stems from medieval jurisprudence rather than the life of Muhammad itself.

The other thing I want to address is this sura, but it's crucial enough to the topic at hand I want to do so at length, and I don't have time now. Hopefully I'll get to it over the weekend.


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