The Qur’an and the Bible (TDTCTW 4)

Both the Bible and the Qur’an are books of divine revelation. Between them they communicate the will of God for about half the world’s population. Abraham and Moses are central figures in both books. The Qur’an even has positive portrayals of Jesus, although there are significant differences between the accounts of Jesus in the New Testament and those of the Qur’an. But although there are many common elements between the two holy books, they are of a different character in at least two fundamental ways.

One fundamental difference lies in the nature of the revelations themselves. The Bible reveals God through His progressive dealings in history. God meets people where they are. The Qur’an is very different from this picture. The Qur’an does not offer chains of history or a coherent focus on any particular theme. Instead it reads like a stream of consciousness, it jumps here and there from commands of God to stories of the ancients to theological pronouncements to prayers to descriptions of the final judgment. The Qur’an is not organized thought. It instead contains recitations by Mohammed which were collected after his death and organized roughly from the longest to the shortest.

The style of the Qur’an, however, is grounded in its very nature. For Jews and Christians the Bible is the product of divinely inspired human beings, generally writing in their own words. Muslims, on the other hand, regard the Qur’an as the eternal words of Allah Himself. According to them, Mohammed played no role in shaping the recitations recorded in the Qur’an. They are the very words of God Himself spoken in the Arabic language, heard by Mohammed and transcribed in Arabic by him. Thus the Qur’an is not the Bible of the Muslims, it functions for them more like Jesus Christ does for Christians. To quote Bob Woodward of Newsweek, “In short, if Christ is the word made flesh, the Qur’an is the word made book.”

For the Muslim God is totally removed from human contact (transcendent). So the closest any human being can possibly come to God in this life is the very words of the Qur’an. And since those words are the very words of Allah Himself, they are only truly valid in the original Arabic. Thus Muslims read the Qur’an and use it in prayers only in the Arabic language, even though the majority of Muslims do not understand it. But what counts for them is not the meaning and the content. The very sounds and syllables of the Arabic Qur’an mediate the presence of God to the one who reads and speaks them. So Islam is not primarily a doctrinal religion. With a few exceptions (there is no God but Allah, Mohammed is His messenger, are examples) Islam is not about what a person believes so much as an experience of God resulting in obedience and submission to His will.

So the Qur’an is very different from the Bible. For the Muslim the Qur’an is the pure and perfect revelation of God, making Islam the only perfect religion. But in spite of this belief in the perfection of the Qur’an’s revelation, Islam today is suffering from a major crisis of authority. The “perfect” revelation is nevertheless ambiguous at many points. Today it seems that any Muslim with an agenda feels free to cite the Qur’an in support of that agenda.

One of the most crucial areas of dispute in the Muslim world today is the role of violence and warfare in the Qur’an. Some who focus on the warfare texts of the Qur’an find fuel for exclusivism, hatred, and killing in the name of Allah. This should not be a total surprise, Westerners reading the Qur’an tend to be appalled at its gruesomeness in places. Grounded in the violence of the Qur’an, all that some Muslims need to justify suicide bombings and highjackings is the perception of a threat to the position and prestige of Islam. As we have seen, Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden have seen such threats coming from a variety of directions.

Many Muslim scholars, however, especially those living in the West, see another side to the Qur’an. They cite recitations that indicate Allah created diverse peoples and cultures for a purpose. Other religious perspectives, therefore, are not to be battled against, but tolerated. And while the Qur’an portrays Allah as a God of vengeance (there are similar concepts in parts of the Old Testament), it has even more to say about mercy, goodness and forgiveness. So the Islamic world is understandably divided in its interpretation. The heart of Mohamed Atta, however, was clearly undivided. He had a firm and fanatical belief that what he was doing was pleasing to God.

So while Mohamed Atta believed that what he was doing pleased God, it is helpful to remember that his fanaticism is not characteristic of the vast majority of believers in the Muslim world. In fact, the events of September 11 were so incompatible with the way the average Muslim thinks that millions in the Middle East believed the attacks on September 11 were some sort of Israeli plot. They felt that no true Muslim could have done such a thing.

But the ambiguity of the Qur’an remains a problem. Islam arose in a brutally violent time (as did the early Israelites) and its sacred book bears witness to that violence. Mohammed and his followers were constantly faced with shifting tribal loyalties, betrayals and misunderstandings. In the process Mohammed led his forces into numerous battles, and at times slaughtered what we, at least, would call “innocents.” So the use of warfare and the slaughter of innocents has some support in the practice of Mohammed himself, the original transcriber and interpreter of the Qur’an. In his defense, however, many would point out that the tribes he slaughtered were themselves seeking to exterminate his faith, making these slaughters “defensive actions.”

Here we must honestly confront a major difference between the behavior of Mohammed, and the teaching and behavior of Jesus, the respective founders of these two great monotheistic religions. Mohammed and his successors clearly used violence in order to achieve the expansion of Islam. Nothing in the teaching or practice of Jesus, on the other hand, gives any encouragement to violence or warfare in behalf of the faith.
“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Rom 12:17-21.

Jesus clearly taught that His followers were to turn the other cheek (Matt 5:38-39), love their enemies, and riddle those who hated them with the bullets of kindness and prayer, rather than AK-47s (Matt 5:44). For Jesus, the highest place in Paradise was not for suicide bombers or battlefield heros, in Jesus’ order “the last would be first” (Matt 19:30) and “the meek would inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5– the teachings of Jesus on this point are echoed elsewhere in the New Testament: Rom 12:17-21; 1 Pet 2:21-23; 3:9).

And Jesus practiced what he preached. When a mob came to apprehend him unjustly, his friend Peter drew a sword and became a slasher in Jesus’ defense. Yet Jesus ordered Peter to put away his sword, even in a defensive action (John 18:10-11). When brought before an unjust court he said, “My kingdom is not of this world, if it were my servants would have fought to prevent my capture” (John 18:36-37). He placed his life in God’s hands, not in the hands of well-meaning, but armed men (Luke 22:40).

It is certainly true that the Bible has its own stories of violence in the name of the Lord. In Exod 15 God is a stalwart defender of His people, assaulting the Egyptian army with His judicial fury (Exod 15:7-10). He drowns the hapless armies of Pharaoh in the Red Sea in response to plight of his people. But stories like these do not have the universal force of the Qur’anic commands. They were specific actions under specific circumstances. They are not a prescription for how God’s people are to respond to situations with their own efforts.

Furthermore, these stories are not “considered God’s own eternal words, as Muslims believe Qur’anic verses to be. . . Israeli commandos do not cite the Hebrew prophet Joshua as they go into battle, but Muslim insurgents can readily invoke the example of their Prophet, Muhammad, who was a military commander himself. And while the Crusaders may have fought with the cross on their shields, they did not–could not–cite words from Jesus to justify their slaughters” (Bob Woodward, Newsweek, “The Bible and the Qur’an,” February 11, 2002, p, 53).

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