Scholar’s corner: how do Abul A’la Maududi and Fazlur Rahman position Jews and Christians in the Quran?

A portrait of Maududi. Credit: DiLeeF/Wikipedia.
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Dr. Imam Mamadou Bocoum is a holder of two Masters and a PhD from The Muslim College, and Heythrop College, University of London. He is a lecturer in Islamic Studies; a Board member of the Muslim Law Council UK and an interfaith consultant. He is currently a consultant at Faith Matters and Tell Mama.

Mamadou has authored a number of written works which have included: The Position of Jews and Christians in the Qur’an; Faith and Citizenship in Islam; The status of Women in Islam; Islamic Fundamentalism and the Qur’an. He can be reached at mbocoum@yahoo.com; Mamadou@tellmamauk.org.

Jews and Christians are referred to as Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book), and are characterised in the Qur’an as those to whom divine revelations have been given prior to the advent of Islam. The Qur’anic reference Ahl al-Kitab indicates that they possess divine scriptures in much the same way Muslims do. The term Ahl al-Kitab made 32 appearances in the Qur’an.

Some Muslims, however, and a number of Muslim commentators mainly with a literalistic reading of the Qur’an, argue that Muslims should have nothing to do with the Ahl al-Kitab. The latter, some Muslims argue, should convert to Islam because their religions have been abrogated by Islam.

For these Muslims the matter is quite clear: not only is Islam the last religion revealed by Allah (God) but Christians and Jews have a religious obligation to convert to Islam. Adherents to this school of thought use a number of Quranic verses to support their argument: “The only true religion with God is Islam”; (Q. 3:19) “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers” (Q. 3:85); and “This day, I have perfected your religion for you, and completed my favour upon you, and chosen for you Islam as your religion” (Q. 5:3).

My aim is to explore Fazlur Rahman’s and Abul Ala Maududi’s views on the People of the Book. In spite of Maududi’s interpretation of the whole Qur’an, I will focus solely on his views towards Christians.

On the other hand, Fazlur Rahman, who did not produce a full tafsir (exegesis), will be looked at in respect of his approach to Jews and Christians. Both were contemporaries and both from subcontinent. Given the problems faced by Christians in the country today, exploring how certain scholars’ view specific Quranic verses might help us understand their plight. Moreover, the fact that a substantial number of Muslims in the UK came from subcontinent adds greater relevance.

Born in 1903 in the state of Hyderabad in British India, Maulana Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi (who later founded Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan), was described by Masudul Hasan as one of the most influential Muslim thinkers of the twentieth century. Hasan went on to claim that Maududi developed a new Islamic theology that could counter the Western intellectual challenge.[1] This claim holds an element of exaggeration but Maududi’s influence did extended beyond the subcontinent.[2] According to William Shepard, Maududi’s writings had a lasting influence on the Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb (who is described as the father of modern Islamism).

Maududi once stated that: “The purpose and object of ijtihad is not to replace the Divine law by man-made law. Its real object is to understand the Supreme Law”.[3]Maududi resisted and confronted the political leaders of his time, for which he was arrested and imprisoned on several occasions. His tafsir (exegesis) remains popular in the subcontinent and beyond. In Britain it proves popular among Deobandis (a reformist ulama movement that emphasised individual responsibility and ‘sober’ Sufism. Islamist strands of this movement influenced the Taliban). [4]

Fazlur Rahman, for his part, was born in 1919 in the Hazarat district, now part of Pakistan. According to Ebrahim Moosa, Rahman’s father was linked to Deobandi Islam, and graduated from the Dar-al-Ulum of Deoband.[5]

Much of Fazlur Rahaman’s traditional Islamic studies were done under the tutelage of his father, who provided him with “a background in traditional Islamic knowledge”.[6]

Rahman went on to gain his Master’s degree in Arabic Language from University of Punjab in 1942. Seven years later and Rahman received the D. Phil. degree by the University of Oxford for his thesis on “Avicenna’s Psychology”. For eight years Rahman headed the Central Institute of Islamic Research, which was initiated by General Ayub Kahn. But accusations of heresy escalated and forced Rahman to choose “a self-imposed exile” in the United States until his death in 1988.[7]

Maududi on Biblical ‘corruptions’  

Maududi divides the Bible into two parts: the first part he argues, was authored by either Jews or Christians and therefore is not divine. The second part of the Bible consists of portions inspired by God. That section, Maududi argued, is in tune with the message of the Qur’an but ‘suffers’ from the “tampering of translators, scribes and exegetes, and the errors of oral transmitters”.[8]

Christians, Maududi goes on to add, exaggerated in the veneration of Jesus simply interpreted their own beliefs “in the light of philosophical doctrines and superstitions”.[9]According to Maududi: “The real error of the Christians lies in considering Jesus to be the son of God and a partner in His godhead, rather than His servant and Messenger”. Maududi saw this as the main obstacle preventing Christians from accepting Islam.

Removing this ‘misunderstanding’ would help Christians accept Islam, as Maududi wrote: “If this misunderstanding is removed it would become quite easy for them [Christians] to advance towards Islam”.[10]

Aside from these misunderstandings and errors, Maududi argued that Christians also employed logic and philosophy “to fabricate one false doctrine after another”.[11] Fabrications that allowed Christians to ‘invent’ “an altogether new religion”.[12]

One can safely say that Maududi did not consider Christianity to be a valid religion let alone divine. Why? Because he contested that early Christians distorted and fabricated the message of Jesus.

To demonstrate that Jesus is a prophet, Maududi quoted from the Gospel of Matthew: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve”. Maududi also argued that Jesus was sent to confirm rather than abolish the previous Prophets’ messages and again cited the Bible: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17).

In an amusing irony, in spite of his reliance on Gospel verses, Maududi maintained that Christian scriptures are broadly untrustworthy and an unreliable source for providing adequate information about Jesus. To this he added: “It is unfortunate that the Gospels in their present form do not offer as clear a picture of the mission of Jesus as that presented in the Qur’an”.[13]

Maududi clearly undermines and discredits Christian sources as unreliable; and, considers the Qur’an the only authentic source regarding the life of Jesus Christ.

Quranic verses relating to Christians: Maududi’s exclusivist approach

A traditionalist but also a modern reformist or activist, Maududi considered the Qur’an to be the literal word of God revealed to Muhammad. In his tafsir, Maududi deals extensively with the core issues relating to Christianity, including the Trinity. In dealing with this issue, Maududi provides some references and even quoted from Christian scriptures. Maududi, however, overlooked the Qur’anic verses praising Christians or extolling values that Christians share with Muslims. To a certain extent, Maududi avoided acknowledging the privileges Christians enjoy in the Qur’an.

Take for instance the Quranic verse: “Yet all are not alike: among the People of the Book there are upright people who recite the messages of God in the watches of the night and prostrate themselves in worship.” (Q.5:113) Maududi avoided any comment in relation to this verse.

Did Maududi think that by addressing this verse he would create some sympathy towards Christians and Jews? Or even acknowledge these traditions?

Another example includes his denial of the reward that both Jews and Christians receive in the hereafter – he omitted any comment on the following verse: “They believe in God and in the Last Day and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong, and hasten to excel each other in doing good. These are among the righteous. Whatever good they do shall not go unappreciated, and God fully knows those who are pious.” (Q.3:116).

Maududi remained silent on the following Quranic verse that speaks about the softness and kindness of Christians towards Muslims: “And you will find the nearest in love to the believers [Muslims] those who say: ‘We are Christians’. That is because amongst them are priests and monks, and they are not proud” (Q. 5:82).

Not wanting to show any positive side of Christianity and Judaism led Maududi to provide a very unsettled interpretation of the Quranic verse (5:5) which allows Muslims to eat their food and marry Jews and Christians.

The Qur’an explicitly states that Muslims can eat the food of Christians and Jews and vice versa. Maududi, however, contends that some conditions must be observed.[14] He stipulates that the name of God must be mentioned, otherwise Muslims “should abstain from eating”.[15] Another condition is that Jews or Christians observe a cleanliness (based on the Shariah) during the slaughter of animals.

You can extrapolate Maududi’s reluctance to acknowledge anything positive about Jews and Christians from his interpretation of the following verse: “Surely, those who believe [Muslims], and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians – whosoever believed in God and the Last Day, and worked righteousness, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve”. (Q. 2:62). (Q.5:69). Maududi informs his readers that: “The aim of this verse is merely to repudiate the illusion cherished by the Jews that, by virtue of their being Jews, they have a monopoly of salvation”. He failed to mention Christians let alone the Sabians in his analysis.[16]

It could be argued that Maududi felt no need to provide commentaries on the above verses because his main audience are Muslims. But Maududi’s effort to highlight both the Trinity and the birth of Jesus undermines that claim.

On all these matters, Maududi made an in-depth analysis and even quoted extensively from the Bible to cement his claims. But he exercised silence towards the Qur’anic verses that are friendly or praiseworthy towards Christians.

I went through his tafsir and discovered that Maududi overlooked almost all the Qur’anic verses sympathetic to Christians. Fazlur Rahman’s work sought to defuse Maududi’s exclusivist, unsympathetic, and poisonous narration.

Fazlur Rahman: Inclusiveness of the Qur’an

Rahman’s view of the Qur’an is very similar to those held by the Mutazilites (a group of early Islamic theologians who argued for the value of reason in theology and religion).[17] His theory of “double movement” took inspiration from the hermeneutical approach of Italian philosopher Emilio Betti.[18] In the theory of “double movement” Rahman argued that the Qur’an is mediated by its pre-existing historical and cultural circumstances.[19]

Rahman took an ethics-based approach to the Qur’an as he believed that “past Muslim thinkers did not make the Qur’an the primary source for ethics in Islam”.[20] He argued that early Muslim scholars lacked the intellectual means to say that “the Qur’an is entirely the word of God, and in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad”.[21] It was this claim that made him a target for accusations of heresy (in the subcontinent and beyond).[22]

Islam: Shaped by both Judaism and Christianity

Rahman provided an inclusive and positive approach to the People of the Book . In his work The Major Themes of the Qur’an, Rahman concluded with a brief but very coherent analysis of Jews and Christians and their status in the Qur’an. Perhaps with the zeal of wanting to demonstrate the Prophet’s recognition of Judaism and Christianity, he stated that Muhammad “recognised without a moment of hesitation that Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other Old and New Testament religious personalities had been genuine prophets like himself”.[23]

Throughout the Qur’an one finds verses that praise and acknowledge the divinity of Judaism and Christianity. Islam not only acknowledges the previous revelations but is also shaped by them, as Rahman argued: “Islam partly took shape by adopting certain important ideas from Judaism and Christianity and criticising others. Indeed, Islam’s self-definition is partly the result of its attitude to these two religions and their communities”.[24]

In Fazlur Rahman’s mind, Judaism and Christianity influenced Islam. In spite of this influence, Islam did not grow “out of an Arab background,” a view championed by scholars such as Montgomery Watt and H.A.R Gibb (to name just a few).[25] Rahman, however, rather daringly went on to claim that some Jews and Christians helped Muhammad in his mission.[26]

To evidence this claim he argued: “It is also certain that there were some Jews and possibly Christians who had entertained Messianic expectation and who when the Prophet appeared, supported him, encouraged him in his mission, and believed in his Message”.[27]

But Rahman did not tell his readers whether these Jewish and Christian individuals who accepted Islam did indeed accept the message of Muhammad in full (and renounced their previous faith).

Whether these Jews and Christians felt a need to abandon their faith in order to accept the religion brought by Muhammad (conditional or not) remains a bold claim. Yet it remains remarkable that Rahman provided no sources for this claim.

Fazlur Rahman on the Quranic verses (Q.5:69); (Q.2:62)

“Surely, those who believe [Muslims], and those who are Jews and the Sabians and the Christians- whosoever believed in God and the Last Day, and worked righteousness, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve” (Q.5:69).

“Verily, those who believe and those who are Jews and Christians, and Sabians, whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does righteous good deeds shall have their reward with their Lord, on them shall be no fear nor shall they grieve” (Q.2:62).

Al-Tabri argued that the above verses were abrogated by a verse that reads: “And whosever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.”(Q.3:85).

Al-Tabri based his claim on the authority of Ibn Abbas. To cement this claim, Muslim exegeses often quote a Prophetic tradition that reads: “There is none from amongst the Jews and the Christians who hears about me then dies without believing in the Message with which I have been sent, but he will be from the dwellers of the Fire”.[28]

In response to the above claims, Fazlur Rahman argued that Muslim commentators avoided admitting the true meaning of the above Quranic verses. It remains possible that Rahman directed his comments towards Maududi who, as we mentioned earlier, argued that verses were revealed in response to Judaism but failed to say anything about Christians or Sabians.

Rahman argued that the true meaning of these verses is that anyone who believes in God, the ‘Last Day’ and does good deeds will be saved. He stated: “Those – from any section of humankind – who believes in God and the Last Day and do good deeds are saved”.[29]

Rahman’s line of argument went against the grain of Muslim exegesis. He rejected the argument that these verses speak of salvation only for the Jews and Christians who either accepted Islam or of those who lived before the advent of Islam.

Instead, he argued: “Muslims constitute only the first of the four groups of those who believe”.[30] In other words, Rahman suggested that Muslims in the above verses are ranked in the same status as the Jews, Christians and Sabians. What matters most is a belief in God, the hereafter and doing good deeds, Rahman argued.

Far from claiming or even implying that Judaism and Christianity are abrogated by Islam, Rahman, for his part, argued that these verses partly acknowledge and recognise other communities:

“The logic of this recognition of universal goodness, with belief in one God and the Last Day as its necessary underpinning, demands, of course that the Muslim community be recognized as a community among communities”.[31]

In Rahman’s eyes, the Qur’an places Muslim communities alongside Jewish and Christian communities. These communities should only compete when it comes to performing good deeds. Rahman went on to add the following: “The positive value of different religions and communities, then, is that they may compete with each other in goodness”.[32]

Rahman argued religions to be the source of the disunity amongst people: “Humankind had been unity, but this unity was split up because of advent of divine messages at the hands of the prophets”.[33]

Rahman considered this element to be me mysterious: “The fact that the prophets’ messages act as watersheds and divisive forces is rooted in some divine mystery”.[34] Religious difference, according to Rahman, is part of God’s plan, and a diversity of belief is something God wanted; for if God had willed it, all humankind would exist under a single state and religious banner. To this Rahman went on to quote the Quranic verse that reads: “If your Lord had so willed, He would have made mankind one community” (Qur’an11:118). Therefore, one cannot ignore the inclusiveness of Rahman’s approach to the Qur’an.

The exclusiveness of Maududi, and indeed many other Quranic commentators’, arguably paved the way for many ill-informed Muslims to hold rather hostile views towards Christians and Jews.

The murder of Christians in Pakistan is arguably one consequence of Maududi’s poisonous interpretation of the Qur’an. Unfortunately, however, Christians are not the only religious minority murdered by extremists in Pakistan.

Footnotes:

[1]MasudulHasan,SayyidAbulA‘alaMaududi (Lahore: Islamic Publication LTD, 1984), P. XI.

[2] William Shepard, ‘ The Diversity of Islamic Thought: Towards a Typology’ in : SuhaTaji-Farouki and Basheer M. Nafi , Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p. 75.

[3]Ibid., p. 77.

[4] “Deobandis.” In The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. 12-May-2015. <http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t125/e522>.

[5]FazlurRahman, Revival and Reform in Islam edited by EbrahimMoosa( Oneworld: Oxford, 2000), p. 1.

[6] Ibid.,

[7]Ibid., p.4.

[8]Sayyid Abdul A‘laMawdudi, Towards Understanding of the Qur’an Vol. 2 (Leicester: the Islamic Foundation, 1992), pp.178-179.

[9]Ibid., p. 181.

[10]Mawdudi, op. cit., p. 248.

[11]Ibid., 181.

[12]Ibid., p. 181.

[13]Maududi, op. cit., p. 255.

[14]Sayyid Abdul A‘laMawdudi, Towards Understanding of the Qur’an Vol. 2 (Leicester: the Islamic Foundation, 1992), pp.137-138.

[15]Ibid., p. 138.

[16]Mawdudi, op. cit., p.179.

[17] Elkaisy-Friemuth, Maha. “Mu`tazilites”. In Oxford Bibliographies in Islamic Studies. 12-May-2015. <http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195390155/obo-9780195390155-0138.xml>.

[18]Rahaman, ‘Revival’, op. cit., 19.

[19]Rahaman, ‘Revival’, op. cit., p. 10.

[20]Ibid., p. 8.

[21]Ibid., p. 15.

[22] Ibid.,

[23]Rahman, ‘Major’, op. cit., p. 163.

[24]Ibid., p. 162.

[25] W. Montgomery Watt and Richard Bell, Introduction to the Qur’an (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970).

[26]FazlurRahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamic, Inc, 1980), p. 153.

[27]Ibid., 153.

[28]Muhammad Huhsin Khan, Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’an(Riyadh: Darussalam, 1996), p. 31; also see p.137.

[29]Rahman, ‘Major’ op. cit., p. 166.

[30]Ibid.,

[31]Rahaman ‘Major’, op. cit., pp.166-167.

[32]Rahman, ‘Major’, op. cit., p. 167.

[33]Ibid., p. 164.

[34]Ibid.,

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