Islam and ‘the Unbeliever’

Introduction

Surely God has cursed (eternally excluded from His Mercy) the unbelievers, and has prepared for them the Blaze

Heavy that, innit?

It’s a quote from the Qu’ran, a commandment to Muslims in how it is they should regard the unbeliever. These handy little one-liners about unbelievers get quoted all over the show, so let’s look at this one.

Here it is in its broader context:

    33.60. Assuredly, if the hypocrites and those in whose hearts there is a disease, and those scare-mongers in the City (given to spreading false rumours to cause disturbance in the heartland of the Islamic Community) do not desist, We will most certainly urge you against them, and then they will not be able to remain in it as your neighbours except a little while only,
    33.61. Excluded from God’s Mercy forever; and wherever they may be found, they will be seized, and killed one and all.
    33.62. (That was) the way of God with those who passed before. You will never find any change in God’s way.
    33.63. People ask you about the Last Hour (when it will befall). Say: “Knowledge of it rests with God alone. ” For all you know, the Last Hour may well be near.
    33.64. Surely God has cursed (eternally excluded from His Mercy) the unbelievers, and has prepared for them the Blaze,
    33.65. To abide therein forever. They will find neither guardian nor helper.
    33.66. On the Day when their faces are turned over and over in the Fire, they will exclaim, “Oh, woe to us! Would that we had obeyed God and obeyed the Messenger!”
    33.67. And they will say: “Our Lord! Surely we obeyed our chiefs and our great ones, and they caused us to follow a misleading path.

It is clear – even without the bracketed commentary in 33.60 – that we are talking about people in ‘the city’, that is to say within the Islamic community itself. This, then, is not a statement about those outside the community of Islam. It does not refer to Christians, or Jews, or to anyone else.

Let’s consider this in a far broader context. In particular, let’s consider Islam and what it is.

Islam is an offshoot of the Judaic religion, as was Christianity. It learned from those religions. One of the things it learned was how the Word of God is prone to abuse. Put the Word of God in the hands of the people – and Islam has never denied Christ or Moses as true Prophets qualified to convey the word of the Almighty – and through prejudice, or for power, or because they’re just plain prejudicial, they will corrupt it. They will re-interpret it. They will pervert it. There will be schisms, there will be hate, and there will be disruptions in the smooth running of the community.

Indeed, two verses on, and precisely that point is made:

    33:69. O you who believe! Do not be like those (among the Children of Israel) who affronted Moses, and (be mindful that) God proved him to be innocent of all that they alleged against him. He was of great honour in God’s sight.

With that convenient introduction, let’s consider Islam’s sister religions, starting with Judaism.

Judaism

The religion of the Jews is based, in its scriptures, upon an amalgam of myths and stories and goodness knows what else drawn from a variety of sources over centuries both in time and geographically within the general area of the Middle East. As it happens, the Jews have handled that well over the millennia. They’ve not come up with creation theorists in the 21st century, they take passages with a pinch of salt, they reject passages altogether for societal expediency. They have a core law of some 613 commandments which serve much the same function as the American constitution in that, if you stray from those, you’d better be ready for some very rigorous debate. However, even these are not strictly codified and have had to be derived from the scriptures so these, too, are open to some debate in some areas.

So here’s the issue. Well as Judaism has fared through the millennia, it is essentially interpretive. That is positive insofar as it provides the faith with flexibility that has served it well through the diaspora with its encounters with new cultures, as well as in its travel through time and the changes that too has wrought upon the world and upon society. It is negative insofar as it requires ordinary people to sort through it all and distinguish wheat from chaff, to move away from the scriptures when it seems appropriate, to make judgements upon what to do and what not to do sometimes in spite of what the scriptures appear to be telling them.

Christianity

Again, Islam affirms Christ as a true prophet, but it sees Christianity as having tied itself up in knots. Its biggest issue is that there are no first-hand records of the words of the Prophet Himself. There are four testaments derived from oral traditions, and it doesn’t take much study to see how they diverge in telling the same story, sometimes quite markedly. All, however, is not lost. Remember Judaism. The truth is in there, it’s simply a case of knowing what to take on board, what to reject. That has the strengths and weaknesses described above and, insofar as Judaism worked, so too Christianity may have worked. Unfortunately there was a problem.

The problem was that Christ came – very specifically – as the Jewish Messiah and – very specifically – he didn’t fit the profile. He was supposed to be a liberator, not someone who was executed as a common criminal. Christ didn’t liberate the Jews. He left them in much the same state as when he arrived. Indeed, in terms of the Jewish people, he was barely noticed – just another prophet among so many with his own little band of followers.

When his followers after his death started talking about his miraculous rebirth, his ascension to heaven, his role as the Messiah, then the Jews started to find this all a bit much. Sure, you had your prophet. Sure, he spoke as much sense as any of ’em. But he’s gone now. Don’t push it. Definitely don’t push it that far. So it was that the Christians began to face active persecution among the more hot-headed of the Jews who took offence.

One such was Saul who took great pride in his persecution of the Christians as one of their main aggressors. Only a funny thing happened to Saul one day on the road to Damascus, no one is sure what. What we do know is that, by the time he got there, he’d dropped the S, gained a P and was reborn as Paul, the Christian, as ardent in Christ’s advocacy as he had been before he hit that road in Christ’s followers’ persecution.

Only, Paul had a problem. His concerns as a Jew persecuting Christians were redoubled. His objections in terms of prophesy as to how it could possibly be that Christ was the Messiah remained. For these to be overcome, it was necessary to go back to the scriptures… and here’s the important bit. The texts needed to be reconsidered in the light of the knowledge Christ was the Messiah because, if he was, then sure as eggs are eggs it had to be prophesied in the texts somewhere.

Some of this work had already been done of course, but with Paul’s ambitions for the faith, he set to it with new verve. Now, here’s the problem with doing that. As already described, the texts were an amalgam of fables, histories, pretty tales, myths nicked from other peoples and other traditions, but for this sort of text analysis you can’t pick and choose. You’re going to be doing some deep analysis. Every word, every nuance counts. Odd passages must have the full weight of absolute truth behind them if they are to be cited in support of the argument because well, if you’re going to say ‘Oh, that’s probably not that important, it’s just the way it was written and anyway, the whole chapter sounds a bit iffy’ then you’ve lost the credibility of your evidence. You need every story, every chapter, every sentence and every word to be true, to be holy; to be, indeed, the Word of God.

Having established that, then everything counts to the finest detail, but what are we doing this with? We’re doing it with a ragbag of writings collected up from all over the show, written by all sorts of people, and we’re investing it all with the quality of literal truth. Moreover, as any EngLit major can tell you, when you turn to a large body of text and go through it with a fine-tooth comb in an effort to prove a contention, you’re going to find that proof because, if you work them hard enough, those words can always be mined for something that fits the profile of the argument you’re trying to make.

I would argue that all the ills of Christianity derive, in the end, from this. Thus, for example, if Leo can make the text read this way, Martin can equally well make it read that way, and so schisms are born. Mine the text for prophesy about how it could possibly be the Messiah was executed as a common criminal and, lo and behold, he died for us, for our sins. To reap the benefits we have to acknowledge that fact and so Christian exclusivity arose. And if every word is the literal truth, the Word of God, then a couple of paragraphs in Genesis trumps any amount of research into evolutionary theory… if you just read those sentences in the right light and closely enough.

In summary, Judaism and Christianity provide the religious environment into which Islam was born as a monotheistic religion. Those who were to become Muslims had not only the sister faiths in their strengths, but also in their weaknesses to scrutinise if they were going to get it right.

Islam

Remember, this is what the originators of Islam were up against.

Judaism, and the scriptures are ephemeral. Okay, you have some 613 and odd commandments to give it some solid grounding – to serve as a foundational constitution of sorts – but you’re still interpreting in terms of what has validity, what doesn’t in the scriptures; what to affirm and what to deny; what is absolute and what is flexible. It works, but it is unsatisfactory on many levels.

Christianity, and though it wasn’t the case at the time of the birth of Islam, we have a schismatic faith in the making. The Catholic church had built itself up a power base adequate to challenge entire nations and held sway over the continent of Europe in having a hold of almost every citizen through faith, a powerful motivator. They could disrupt rulers’ leadership, they could give the go-ahead or deny their invasion plans according to their own best interests. They could turn their own populace against them. Only something kicked in, pretty inevitably, and that was hubris. When you have that amount of power you use it to your own advantage, why wouldn’t you? And so justification was found in scripture for all manner of things such as the selling of indulgences and the excommunication of the powerful and their citizenry who wouldn’t follow the Church line. Orthodoxy had already split off, and now it was the turn of someone locally to say ‘What???’ and so arguments were written down for scholarly debate and were posted to a church door, the noticeboard for such debates, with the intention of starting a discussion within the Catholic church itself.

It wasn’t to be. The theses made sense, but they were an intolerable intrusion. They were to be rejected. Only… they still made sense, they had won their advocates, and so Protestantism was born. No sooner did it do so than, thanks to that Biblical interpretation thing again, it fragmented into schisms, schisms within schisms, and schisms within schisms within schisms.

Yes, this post-dated Islam, but the folly that was to lead to this was still evident. Islam had its precedents set by the Prophets such as Moses and Jesus, then; but it also had the negative example of how those prophets had been used, misused, even abused.

Islam was to be different.

Islam was founded upon the Qu’ran. The Qu’ran was the word of God directly transmitted to the Prophet who enunciated those words for careful transcription. It was a detailed account of society and personal conduct deemed ideal in the eyes of the Lord, or as ideal as any society of human beings ever can be. Such a core text circumvented the issues that had arisen and were to arise within Judaism and Christianity. There was to be no questioning it, but it needed to be flexible through references to exceptions that were tolerable, even necessary to the laws as laid down. Thus, for example, fasting was not intended as penance or punishment, but as a point of focus and self-purification, an act parallel perhaps to meditation. It most assuredly was not intended to be injurious to health, and so guidelines were broadly delineated whereby Muslims were exempted, the focus upon right-thinking in making the decision, and such an exemption, if possible, to be made up for at another time or in other ways. The Qu’ran recognises, again and again, that absolutes don’t make for good law.

Unbelievers and Heretics

A new digression.

As an Englishman, I was born in a Christian nation. Albeit that nation is now far more secularised, when I was at school I had religious education (RE) lessons, the morning service in the school hall with hymns sung, history lessons in which the influence of the Catholic church was forever there in the background, TV programmes, occasional trips to the church, Victorian novels… in other words, though I was never a believer and have been agnostic for as long as I can remember, Christianity for me was religion. My culture meant that Christianity was the default, and Christianity plays heavily upon the idea of faith as the path to salvation. Indeed, it is founded upon it; it is, for those with my upbringing, as fundamental a hallmark of religious thinking as the idea of a God.

My first introduction to a faith outside Christianity was Buddhism. This I studied rather intensely in my 20s. To me it didn’t seem like a religion at all. It was agnostic. It seemed to have no faith in anything much at all, its mythology merely ‘surface trappings’ that seemed allegorical and susceptible to rational analysis in terms of those things they depicted. To me it seemed like pure philosophy, but in retrospect that was wrong. It is a religion. It involves practice. It involves ritual. There are many obvious parallels between the monks of Buddhism in meditation and the monks of Christianity at prayer. We do not, after all, fast; sit in meditation for half an hour; light an incense stick; bow before a statue in the local library before we pick up Plato’s Republic. Still, for me until very recently, Buddhism was so separate from Christianity as to appear to be a pure philosophy, and one of the key differences was in its approach to those who were not themselves Buddhist. It’s rarely stated because it seems so obvious to them they don’t bother, but if you are a Christian, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Jew doing well by your fellow man, then you’re on the right path. It really doesn’t matter in what direction you bow to in walking it. A good Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu is a good Buddhist in all but name.

It was only very recently that I studied broadly, though not deeply, some other religions. Among them were Judaism and Islam. With Judaism I had anticipated an exclusive religion along the lines of Christianity that being, remember, my ‘default’ due to acculturation. Besides, the Jews are the ‘chosen people’ are they not? Pretty darned exclusive-sounding that.

To my surprise, I found Judaism was not exclusive, though, as with Buddhism, it doesn’t feel the need to bang on about the fact. Remember – it is only those raised in a Christian background who regard exclusivity as the default. Other religions do not bother to go on much about it given that, for them, it is not an issue that arises, so why would they? It would be as pointless as someone in Milton Keynes designing his garden defences in such a way as to keep out stampeding elephants. Why allude to something that has no relevance? The ‘chosen people’, then, are indeed blessed in having received the Word of the Lord, but their God is the Creator of all humanity, not only them. He loves all humanity, not only them. As a benevolent God, He loves those of His creatures who love one another and do to them as they would be done to by them and that – that alone – is His criterion of judgement.

If in reading this you too are from a Christian background, drop your preconceptions for a moment. Is this really so weird? A God who creates all humanity, Who loves humanity, Whose primary concern is whether those He created love one another? Does it really make sense that his biggest concern should be you join His fan club? We’re talking God here, for heaven’s sake, not Justin Bieber.

The fact is that non-exclusivity – whether we’re talking salvation, enlightenment, anything else – is not the religious default. It is a quirk solely in the domain of Christianity. In this respect, Christianity is not ‘normal’. As religions go, it is singularly abnormal.

So to Islam. It is a default religion which, remember, means it is not exclusive. Its attitude is “We are Muslims, we do what we do, you go your way, live a decent life and you’ll be fine in the eyes of the Almighty.” The Qu’ran doesn’t concern itself with anyone outside the Islamic community. Why would it? It is a series of laws and guidelines laid out for the Islamic community. It’s not going to concern itself with anyone else any more than, say, British law will start banging on about what should be happening in France or laying down rules for Argentinians to follow. For it to do so would not be an affront, it would be absolutely meaningless.

And yet it pops up again, and again, and again in some of the most quoted passages on the internet – ‘the unbeliever’. Why?

‘The unbeliever’ is himself a part of the Islamic community about which the rules are being laid out. He is an unwelcome member. He is an individual who has taken it upon himself to deviate away from the teachings of the Qu’ran. Now, remember all that guff above? It is there for a reason. It is there to illustrate one of the most fundamental aspects of Islam, perhaps the most fundamental. The law, as laid out in the Qu’ran, is everything. It is sacrosanct. It brooks no deviation. If the Truth is to be protected, it must be adhered to. Mess with it, and you are spitting in the face of the Almighty.

If you want to renounce Islam, go ahead. Your choice. But you renounce it. You do not deviate from it and still profess to be a Muslim. If you do that, you are a severely destabilising influence within the society. Do that, and you place everything in jeopardy.

This raises an interesting question. Wouldn’t it be better to classify such individuals in English translations of the Qu’ran as ‘heretics’? Certainly, were English translations of the Qu’ran to do that, then it would limit the confusion and prevent people quoting passages referring to ‘unbelievers’ in mischief. The problem here, perhaps, is with the meaning of the word ‘heretic’. The views of the heretic are unorthodox, certainly, but this carries with it an implication which is subtle but important. The heretic may have got a bad name in the history of the Catholic church, but heretics got their bad name because only the Papacy was permitted to interpret the Bible. It was no one else’s job. People setting themselves up as interpreters were not doing God’s work, they were doing the work of the devil but, nonetheless, the Pope was truly an interpreter. The Bible required careful reading, careful analysis, a careful critique if the Truth was to be unearthed from it with the guidance of God, (or so ran the official line).

The Bible is whimsical. The Qu’ran is pragmatic. If the Bible is Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, then the Qu’ran is an instruction manual for the construction of an IKEA wardrobe. It is concise, direct, unambiguous. It doesn’t require interpretation. It calls a spade a spade and tells you how best to dig with it. It does not lend itself to textual analysis or poetic interpretation. That is not to say that it cannot be studied in depth; nor is it to say that there is no poetry within it. It is to say that the meaning throughout is clear and apparent.

If this is correct, then there can be no heretics in Islam. A heretic is unorthodox, a person who goes against orthodox interpretations. With the Qu’ran there is only the unambiguous text. You either accept what is written there, or you do not. If you do not, or if you play with it and try to make it sound like something else, or if you extract single lines out of context and pretend they mean something other than what they mean, you are not indulging in interpretation. If you say ‘That’s according to the Qu’ran’ then you are preaching lies. You yourself have stepped out of Islam and are encouraging others to do so. To call yourself a Muslim, you must follow just the one belief. “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet.” Step outside that in your belief or in your preaching and you are not a heretic, you are an apostate. You are an unbeliever. You no longer have any claim to being a Muslim.

To continue to profess yourself a Muslim is so potentially destabilising to the society in which you are living, and is such an affront to the Almighty, that yes… the language gets pretty ugly, pretty fast.

All these one-liners…

… are adding fuel to the fire that engulfs Islam in the mind of many in the west. Muslims are uncompromising, frequently violent. Islam is a religion of hatred and, most specifically, hatred of those who are not themselves of the faith. Such lines are presented on page after page after page on the web as proof that Islam wants a holy war against all other faiths, (most specifically Christianity of course wherein the idea of those not of the faith as ‘something other’ take particularly strong root given the exclusive nature of Christianity itself). I would ask anyone presented with such lines from the Qu’ran to do the following:

    i), make sure it is a quote from the Qu’ran, and not from a hadith. The hadith are derived from an oral tradition concerning the sayings of the Prophet, are considered secondary sources at best, are widely disputed, and can get a little bizarre. To take one amusingly paradoxical example, I’ve been told of a hadith that instructs its readers not to take seriously anything written in a hadith.
    ii), put the quote into Google. If anything in the quote is in brackets, do not include it.
    iii), find a reputable Islamic site which places the quote in the context of a much longer passage.
    iv), check the quote itself against what was bracketed in the quote you were given. These mischief-makers are not beyond putting their own ‘commentary’ into the brackets to emphasise the misunderstanding they are trying to engender.
    v), now read the quote in the context of the longer passage, several paragraphs both before and after the target quote.
    vi), and finally – remember this is a text written in the context of its time. The Qu’ran is a peaceable work which makes it very clear that pre-emptive aggression is intolerable in the eyes of the Almighty, but given the nature of the time and the place, defence against attacks from neighbours was a matter of regular necessity.

Do that, and you should find, I hope, what I have found every time I have undertaken this brief, (three minutes tops), bit of research for myself. The ‘unbeliever’ referred to is a person within the Islamic community itself who is causing trouble.

Given the turmoil that exists between Christianity and Islam at present and the amount of misinformation doing the rounds, one of the most depressing things is the way in which some of these ideas are afflicting the fringes of the Islamic community itself. Why, it has to be asked, would someone professing him- or herself a Muslim be spreading such misinformation?

Here, another diversion before I return to the question. I have a friend in the USA, a second-generation Pakistani Muslim. He is one of the most rational, reasonable, peaceable people I have ever met and has engaged in polite conversation with Christians and those of other faiths to brilliant effect as a spokesman for his religion. Zaan, (for that is his name), in dealing with the negative perceptions of Islam, wanted to ask his father whether he followed Islam as an exclusive religion, but was afraid to do so. Zaan himself did not, but he knew his father to be more traditionalist, more hard-line as someone raised in the faith back in Pakistan. Finally he broached the subject. It turned out that no, his father was not exclusive, any more than Zaan was. That had nothing to do with Islam. Those of other faiths could indeed be right in the eyes of the Almighty by following that which is written in their hearts.

The interesting thing is not that this was Zaan’s father’s answer; the interesting thing is that Zaan was afraid to ask, fearful he would hear something different and, honest chap that he is, would have to report that back to the group with which he was discussing the topic. Why would he think that? He knows his Qu’ran, and knows that the Christian belief in exclusivity has no place within Islam.

I think the answer lies in his having been born and raised in the USA. For him, the cultural norm set, once again, is of the hard-liners within a religion being particularly exclusive, particularly judgemental of outsiders rather than concerned with the activities within their community, particularly convinced that they have the keys to the Kingdom of God while others are to be condemned to hell for all eternity. It is not, then, surprising that he should have projected hard-line Christianity onto his father as a hard-line Muslim and expected to hear much the same ideas expressed. However, hard-line Islam, unlike hard-line Christianity, has nothing to do with that.

So, why are some self-professed Muslims quoting these lines out of context and in isolation as much as the non-Muslims seeking to bring Islam into disrepute? This may all be to do with the politicisation of Islam. It would appear that the most troublesome elements on the fringes of Islam are often those born in nominally Christian countries who are either raised in Islam within that community, or who come upon it and convert. Just as Zaan, it is likely they are going to believe that a muscular faith will indeed be exclusive and judgemental in the Christian fashion. Indeed, for some that may even be the attraction, particularly if they feel that they themselves have faced discrimination or judgemental attitudes and relish the idea of being ‘the saved’ for a change, the holders to the keys of the Kingdom of the Almighty, the chosen ones rather than the outsiders.

It is unlikely that those who disseminate such quotations and profess themselves Muslim are very well acquainted with the Qu’ran. If they were, they would be familiar with the longer passage that gives any such quotation its context. The sad truth is that these individuals may well be finding their quotes on mischief-making sites and adding to the racket themselves in repeating them or, worse, that they are being led astray by being provided with them by those in the Islamic community who want to see Islam politicised in this fashion.

Those people would do well to remember to whom it is that the curses against the ‘unbeliever’ apply.

It is themselves.


2 thoughts on “Islam and ‘the Unbeliever’

  1. Good effort, Pete. Of course I’d have some comments about the characterization of Christianity and Judaism…so I suspect as I study Islam more I’d have a few there too. But this is from your POV and the your frame of reference at this time. All that’s temporal so I’ll be interested to see how things continue to evolve in your thinking. Like I said, good–great–effort.

    • Thanks, Ted. I think what I’ve tried to provide overall in the analysis is the ‘general tenor’ of each. Of course, any such generalising is going to land some sheep in with the goats, but it is nonetheless useful in seeing how Islam evolved out of the Judaic religions, even if people want to argue it got its ideas wrong in that evolution.

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