TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 3: 5 Principles for Understanding “Difficult” Qur’anic Passages

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A Indian Muslim reads the Koran at a madrassa during the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan in Mumbai on June 30, 2014. Indranil Mukherjee—AFP/Getty Images

The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.

When I have the opportunity to engage with people of other faiths, I am often asked about controversial passages in the Qur’an that seem belligerent toward non-Muslims. It would require an entire book to go over every single such passage and offer theories of interpretation and explanation. So, I would like to offer something else as food for thought: five principles to keep in mind when studying or trying to understand these difficult Qur’anic passages.

  1. Islam is the third and last of Abraham’s sibling faiths following Judaism and Christianity. Each religion offers a vigorous critique of what came before, partly as a justification for needing a new prophet and revelation. As such, Islam has much to say in way of praise as well as criticism of Jews and Christians as previously revealed faiths. If Islam had come before Judaism or Christianity, they would surely have had similar critiques of Islam.
  2. The Qur’an, when offering critiques of Jews and Christians, always uses the term in Arabic “al” to indicate “the,” which in the Arabic language indicates specificity, not generality. In other words, all of these verses are talking about a specific group of Jews and/or Christians, by no means all Jews and Christians. In fact, the Qur’an itself reminds Muslims: “But they are not all alike. There are some among the People of the Book who are upright, who recite God’s revelation during the night, who bow down in worship, who believe in God and the Last Day, who order what is right and forbid what is wrong, who are quick to do good deeds. These people are among the righteous and they will not be denied [the reward] for whatever good deeds they do: God knows exactly who is conscious of Him” (3:113-115). All passages that offer criticism of Jews or Christians must be tempered with this cautionary passage.
  3. From a Muslim perspective, the Qur’an is not playing favoritism toward any one subjective group but rather more interested in objectively holding up truth and righteousness. As such, it does offer scathing criticism of Jews and Christians when their communities failed to uphold truth and righteousness, but there are also passages in the Qur’an where God offers scathing criticism of Muslims for their failings too. In fact, if you collect all of the passages in the Qur’an that are specifically addressed to the Muslims (usually beginning with “O you who believe”), what often follows is a criticism or a warning. For example, “O you who believe, why do you say things and then do not do them? It is most hateful to God that you say that which you do not do” (61:2-3).
  4. These passages from the Qur’an must be read keeping in mind two contexts: historical and textual. When you come across a passage in which the Qur’an is condemning Jews or Christians, you have to pause and ask yourself what was happening at the historical time of the revelation and what is it that the Qur’an is actually responding to. And, you have to also ask yourself if there are other passages within the Qur’an that temper or clarify the “difficult” passage. For example, in Chapter 5, the Qur’an strongly discourages Muslims from taking Jews and Christians as their allies (awliyah). But, much later in the Qur’an, in Chapter 60, it clarifies that the previous passage was meant only for those who acted belligerently toward the Muslims, not those who were good to the Muslims and kept their treaties with them.
  5. Lastly, one has to keep in mind when reading such passages that the Islamic tradition has a long and vast history of developing schools of interpretation around the Qur’an that dissect every verse of the Qur’an with linguistic and grammatical analysis, historical context and commentary, to name only a few. As such, as is true with other revealed scriptures, a literal and outward reading of the text – let alone the translated text – defies the way in which Muslims have read and understood their scripture for centuries.

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