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Taking the Qur’an out of Context
Years ago I had a conversation with a Muslim who was being critical of the Bible for several reasons. One that I found very interesting was that he thought it was horrible that the Bible portrayed Jesus as a terrorist. When I asked for the Bible verse that allegedly characterized Jesus in that way, he read me Matthew 10:34: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
At first I was just flabbergasted because I couldn’t believe this young man interpreted the verse in this way, but eventually I saw the problem. He had taken the verse out of context and failed to read what lead up to the verse and what followed the verse. Taking the context into consideration would have helped him come to an entirely different conclusion.
Recently, I have heard Christians on Youtube, in print media, and on television do the same thing with the Qur’an. They read the second surah, verse 191 to show that Muslims are commanded by Allah in the Qur’an to chase and kill Christians and non-believers. The verse reads, “And kill them wherever you find them.” Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it. When a Muslim finds a Christian or non-believer, the Muslim is to kill them. The inevitable conclusion that these Christians draw is that groups such as ISIS are just following the Qur’an and, moreover, Muslims who say that Islam is a peaceful religion are either not following the Qur’an or practicing taqiyyah (lying to spread Islam).
Here is the problem. These Christians are doing what the young Muslim man did with the Bible, namely, they are ignoring the verses before and after 2:191 that contextualize the verse to mean something quite different than the meaning given to it by those Christians.
If the Muslim man had read the verses surrounding Matthew 10:34, he might have seen that it is referring to the fact that there are people who will hate the teachings of Jesus and the fact that Christians follow him. The result will at times be violence, not because Jesus preached violence but because the world when it encounters the truth of Jesus can react violently.
If the Christians had read the verses before and after 2:191 they would find that the passage is giving Muslims permission to use force when those around them are persecuting them and trying to expel them from where they are. The verses clearly state that if and when the aggressors or persecutors stop the aggression/persecution, then the Muslims are to stop the fighting. Why? Verse 2:192 says that Allah is forgiving and merciful and thus Muslims by implication are to be forgiving and merciful toward those who do not engage in aggression or persecution.
The other problem some Christians have is with the Arabic. The word ‘fitnah’ in verses 2:191 and 2:193 is often interpreted by them to mean “disbelief” when a better translation, and the one used by most Muslim commentators on the verses, is ‘persecution’ or ‘sedition’. [I will discuss using commentaries in an upcoming point of this paper.]
It might be intellectually more honest to read verses in context. Doing so might minimize such egregious misinterpretation that gives rise to prejudice about the other.
I recommend that believers of any faith when engaging believers of another faith, read the commentaries of the scholars of the other faith that help interpret or contextualize the scripture of the other faith. For example, regarding the Qur’an 2:191, a Christian might read the commentary of Ibn Kathir that contextualizes the verse to mean something quite different than the meaning given to it by the Christian reading the verse without the context and without access to the centuries of commentary around the verse.
Will contextualizing the verses solve the problem completely? Absolutely not. Why not? Because ignorant believers in a particular scripture often decontextualize or misinterpret a verse in their own holy book. Let’s look at some examples.
Have Christians at times treated the Bible to justify Jesus as the Lord of Wars more than the Prince of Peace because they read a verse such as Matthew 10:34 and believe that Jesus is advocating violence? Absolutely! This happened in the Crusades, which was actually a string of crusades, some launched by Muslims and others by Christians, each resorting to brutal violence. It was a horrible time in the history of both Christianity and Islam.
Have Muslims at times treated Muhammad as advocating violence without any constraints when convenient for Muslims? Absolutely! ISIS does it daily.
Even acknowledging these horrendous events in our histories doesn’t solve the problem because believers often get into a game of “your sin is worse than my sin,” “your transgressions are worse than our transgressions.” Or believers of different faiths often engage in the dubious logic of comparing the ideals of their faith against the realities witnessed in the lives of those of the other faith. I don’t find it morally sensitive or helpful to justify sin in any way.
Sinful people are often not interested in the truth but instead on misusing words of truth to justify sin rather than promote goodness.
Jesus warned us about this and directed us to remove the log in our own eye before addressing the speck in another’s eye.
Am I saying that the Qur’an and the Bible, or Muhammad and Jesus are equivalent? Absolutely not! If I did, I wouldn’t be a true Christian. I am saying that I think ideals such as rigorous intellectual honesty, brutally honest and probing self-reflection, loving one’s enemy, reflecting the character of Jesus, and the unrelenting hope that goodness ultimately prevails over evil are vitally important to the life of a Christian. If we take these seriously, we don’t need to resort to bad logic and hateful rhetoric. But hey, we are a mess, a big mess, so there will be times in our life when we do give in to our sinful nature and we use bad logic and hateful rhetoric, but the solution there is to repent, not try to justify our behaviors.
The world and some people may experience the truth of Jesus as a sword, but let’s not use our bad behavior as a weapon. Jesus is the Prince of Peace, so let’s not make him look like the Lord of Wars by our behavior. Muhammad was Muhammad and the Qur’an is the Qur’an, no words from us about them are even needed.
A final thought: If your conversation with a Muslim ends up being your only interaction with that Muslim, do you want to spend it criticizing the Qur’an and talking about Muhammad? It is usually more helpful to focus on why Jesus really came.