Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Who are the Kafir? The Buriers of Truth


The people of Mecca are the first to hear the message delivered by the Prophet Muhammad. There is no confusion about what is being said since they are hearing the message first hand. They sit down in the presence of Muhammad and listen to his voice without a single person in between to alter the message, or mix it up with lies, or manipulate it to make it something else for personal gain. There is no confusion about the meaning of the words for it is delivered in the language that everybody understands in its context and time. If anyone is uncertain about the intention behind the verses they only have to look at the example of Muhammad in his daily life, since he has the reputation of being a trustworthy individual, always known for speaking the truth and living a life of honesty, without exception.

The propaganda against Muhammad is not yet a problem for the people of Mecca. However, some of the people who hear the message hate it, not so much because they disagree with the theology, but rather because it threatens their comfortable way of life founded on privilege. So the leaders of the powerful clans in Mecca meet to discuss what to tell the pilgrims to keep them away from his message - should they say he is a soothsayer or a madman perhaps? After some debate regarding strategy they decide that labelling him as a madman would not work since he clearly speaks sense, so instead they will spread the lie that Muhammad is a magician and they set about warning pilgrims not to listen to him. They say that if you listen to Muhammad he will surely bewitch you and break up your unity - and thus the very first propaganda against Islam, based on fear, is launched.

These people who tried to cover up this revelation of 'oneness' and equality with their lies and deception are described in the Quran as 'kafir' (also kaffar/kufar and other variations depending on grammar). They were people who perfectly understood the meaning of the message of 'One God' and its implications on society, where everyone would be treated with fairness and equal value, but realised that to accept such a message would be to give up their superior social statuses. The word kafir is usually translated into English as 'unbelievers' but in Arabic it has a deeper meaning. The root of the word 'kfr', which also exists in Jewish and Christian scripture since they share the same Semitic origins, literally means 'to cover up/cover over/conceal'. The same word was used at that time for farm labourers (tillers) whose job it was to cover up seeds with the earth after they had been sown, as is shown in the Quran:
"Know that the worldly life is play and amusement and beautification and competition to increase wealth and children, like the example of rain which pleases the 'kufara' (tillers) with crops that grow, then it dries up and you see the crops turning yellow then they are crushed." HQ 57:20
The Quran compares those who put their trust in God against those who cover up the truth. In the following verse the Quran explains that the efforts of those who cover up will have their efforts go in vain, whereas the faithful will have their flaws covered up by God:
"Those who 'kafaru' (disbelieve/cover over truth) and turn away from the way of God, He will cause their work to go astray, and those who 'amanu' (believe/trust) and do good deeds (of peace and reconciliation), and 'ammanu' (believe/put their trust in) what is sent down to Muhammad and it is the truth from their Lord, he will 'kaffara' (cover over) their evil and improve their condition. That is because those who 'kafaru' (disbelieve/cover over truth) follow falsehood and those who are faithful follow the truth from their Lord. Thus God presents a comparison to mankind." HQ 47:1-3
We know that over the lifetime of Muhammad the Muslims actually later came to make peace with those people in Mecca who initially tried to cover up the message with their lies and persecution. Most of the kafir who were initially trying to keep people away from the message through spreading their lies and later fighting the Muslims in an attempt to eliminate them from the land altogether, eventually came to either accept Islam of their own accord or came to an understanding of peaceful co-existence after Muhammad's peaceful conquest of Mecca, since Muhammad forgave everyone. Even those who killed some of the Prophet's closest friends and were forever plotting to get rid of the Muslims were forgiven and he insisted that no-one should be forced to accept Islam as their religion.

But for the Muslim today, how should we understand the meaning of 'kafir' when we read the Quran, so that we can apply the teachings in our modern day context? Who are the kafir?

Separating truth from distortion and lies is not a simple process. Regarding Islam there is much debate over what exactly Muhammad was preaching and how Muslims should be living today. Personally I used to reject Islam because all I knew about Islam through the media was that of an angry God and a religion built on violence and intolerance of people from other beliefs. It took me years of research and getting to know Muslims to separate fact from fiction to the point where I could start to understand the original message of peace, mercy and patience from Our Lord. Yet I was on a journey to uncover truth, rather then to bury those facts that did not suit me. I believe my submission God's truth started some years before I even knew about Islam.

I have some friends who don't believe in God, since they see so many wars apparently fought in the name of God - and yet my friends believe in humanity, which often seems far closer to the message which Muhammad delivered to mankind than do messages of intolerance that we sometimes hear promoted as part of religion today.

Everyone is on their own path, with God guiding those people who are searching for truth, unveiling what they search for in His perfect time. Other people are not looking for truth at all, but running from it or actively concealing it. When researching those who bury the truth I learnt that it's even a career choice today, with governments employing people to work out how best to bury their bad news and cover over their errors with 'spin' to make them look good.

Uncovering truth is not always a comfortable thing. It will at some point challenge our perceptions and perhaps cast a negative light on people, things or concepts that we once held dear to us. We may for example love our country, but there is hardly a nation in this world without its own dirty secrets of injustice that can be difficult for us to accept. If we choose the path of submission to God, we must have the courage to put our pride aside and face truth, however painful or difficult truth may be.
"Oh you who believe, be people who stand up for justice, witnesses for God, even if it is against yourselves or your parents or relatives, whether rich or poor, for God is nearer to both." HQ 4:135
When considering the Quran in today's context, I consider the kafir to be the buriers of truth, those people who actively, knowingly cover up truth with lies for personal or political gain. It is such people who attempt to divide humanity and the message of our shared creation. But we draw hope from the clear message in the Quran that ultimately their attempts will go in vain and that God's plan for mankind will in no way be harmed.
"Indeed, those who covered up and averted from the way of God and opposed the messenger after the guidance was made clear to them, never will they harm God in anything and He will make worthless their deeds."  HQ 47:32 

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Revolutionary Muhammad


In the year 613 AD Muhammad ibn Abdullah begins preaching a message of mercy publicly to the people of Mecca. He has been receiving revelations for 3 years, sharing the message with just a small circle of companions, but now he has been instructed by God to take the message to the wider community and to call all the people to a new way of life.

This instruction is simple: to return to God, as the prophets before had also called people to do. Yet it is a revolutionary message since it is one based on honesty and equality, where all people hold the same value, only differing in importance through piety and good action. People are called to put their man made idols aside and to worship neither man nor man's creations but only Allah, who is neither seen nor created and is above us all, yet closer than our jugular vein. Every human being, whether man, woman, child, servant or slave, is to hold equal worth and be treated with dignity.
"I bear witness to this city, and to those who are permitted in this city, and to the parents and their children: certainly we have created man in hardship. Does he think that no one has power over him? He will say 'I have squandered wealth in abundance.' Does he think that no one sees him? Did we not make two eyes for him, and a tongue and two lips? And show him the two ways? But he has not attempted the steep path. And what can make you know the steep path? Freeing a slave, or feeding on a day of severe hunger, an orphan of close relations or a needy person in the dust. Then he is of those who are faithful and urges each other to patience and urges each other to compassion. Those are the companions of the right. But those who conceal our signs are the companions of the left, over them the fire closes in." HQ 90:1-20
This beautiful message transmitted by Prophet Muhammad, that mankind is one, because we all share the same creator, and therefore are all of equal value, is a difficult pill to swallow for many of the people of Mecca. They have built up a society based on tribal loyalties and social hierarchies, with some people claiming superiority over others because of heredity and wealth, gender or ethnicity. At the top of the power hierarchy are the rich businessmen with a lighter brown skin colour from tribes who have shrines to the most revered Gods, and at the very bottom of the pile are the black female slaves of unknown parentage. Yet here is Muhammad preaching that their man made deities are worth nothing,  since we are all created by 'Al-Ahad' (The One), that baby girls should not be buried at birth, that even women and children have rights, that tribal preferences are wrong, that orphans and their property are to be protected, and that to free a slave is the most noble thing to do.

In "The Life of Muhammad", Tahia Al-Ismail (ch 6:4) writes:
"Many of the eminent people of Quraysh began to feel it was a threat to their privileges and their way of life. They were not willing to sacrifice their privileges for the sake of the wronged; they were not ready to give up the customs of generations, customs that had secured their honorary titles and high status, for the sake of the truth. And they saw no reason why they should jeopardise their economic interests for the good, even if it was the good of all humanity."
The message of human equality in the early days of Islam is shocking enough to upset the rich and powerful elite who live a comfortable life waited on by their slaves.  It may also threaten the livelihood of Mecca since pilgrims from all over the land visit this city where they pay homage to the keepers of the shrine of Meccca so that they may worship their different deities, bringing valuable business with them when they do. As Muhammad starts to be noticed and the Muslims (submitters) start to grow in number, those who deny this message attempt to destroy his credibility by spreading lies about him and by persecuting him and his followers. Later these people who denied the message, from amongst whom Muhammad and his companions were raised, grew up with and played together as children, even many of their own family members, will try to eliminate the Muslims from the land altogether.

Monday, 13 April 2015

One God - the beauty of Islam

Before accepting Islam, I pondered over the importance of the statement "Ash hadu an la ilaha ill Allah" - I swear there is no god but Allah/God, the first testimony of faith for a Muslim, around which one may argue the whole religion is centred.

It had taken me a while to grasp the concept that Allah is actually the Arabic word for God. Previously I had thought that perhaps this profession of faith was a statement to say 'we Muslims know His name, and you others have got it wrong'. But no, Allah is not actually the name for the Muslim God, as opposed to the Christian God. Christians in the Middle East also use the word 'Allah' instead of 'God', in fact, for them there is no other word.

So why was it so important to profess that there is no other god than God, and why this emphasis on the 'oneness' of God? Was it in some way to exert Muslim superiority over Christians, who may have suggested that God was in some way actually three through the concept of the Trinity? Was God angry with mankind for getting his name wrong, or for suggesting that God may be found in more than one form, was that the central message to Islam? Or was it to tell us to stop worshipping other gods? Maybe we aren't making statues and bowing down before them like in the past, but people are chasing material wealth and fame for example; perhaps this was the importance of 'no god but God'? But what was the big deal, in this single statement? Did it really matter about names or who I worshipped so long as I was good and kind to my neighbour?

And then after some time pondering it struck me, out of nowhere some might say, or out of everywhere, personal revelation if you like: There is no god but God means this: my God is your God, and your God is mine. Since there is only one God, every man, woman, child, all of creation for that matter, must come from that one source of creation, and this, yes THIS is the beauty of Islam. It was at that moment of realisation that a key to my heart turned. I still had lots of unanswered questions mind, it wasn't with that one understanding that I embraced Islam - but it was the opening of a door, to look further, because I did indeed believe that all of mankind comes from one source, that we are all brothers and sisters whether we like each other or not, sharing the same humanity. This is the message that I love.

The emphasis on mankind, humanity and the whole of creation is one that I came to learn runs right through the Quran. The word for the people/mankind (and its derivatives) 'al-nas' is mentioned 241 times in the Quran.

In talking of the sanctity of every human life, and the value of each soul to the body of mankind, the Quran states "he who kills a soul, other than for a soul or for spreading corruption in the earth, it is as if he has killed all of mankind, and whoever saves it then it is as if he has saved all of mankind." (HQ 5:32)

Regarding why some people are raised above others in wealth and livelihoods in this world, the Quran explains "And if it were not that mankind were to become one community, we would have made for those who disbelieve in the Most Merciful for their houses roofs of silver and stairways upon which they mount..." (HQ 43:34) These verses explain why some people have more and others less - this is God's plan so that mankind might become one - for if we all had everything we needed, if we were all self-sufficient, there would be no need for us to draw closer to each other, and there would be no need for us to learn about mercy.

The word 'alamin' is another frequently used word that has a similar meaning and is also sometimes translated as 'mankind'. It is derived from the root 'alm' which is related to knowledge. Alamin actually means more than just mankind because it also includes animals, and the spirit world, and everything in nature, and even the planets. Sometimes it is translated as 'the worlds' or 'the universe', but for me that loses some of the beauty in the meaning of knowledge, so I like to think of it as 'mankind, plus all of creation'. It really is a wonderful word because it connects mankind to the rest of creation: in mankind plus all of creation together, there is knowledge, we are whole. This word is used in the very first Surah of the Quran, Surat Al-Fatihah 'The Opener', which is the verse that Muslims recite 5 times a day. It starts like this: "In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, all praises and thanks be to Allah the Lord of Alamin (Mankind and all of creation)." (HQ 1:2)

Regarding Muhammad, the Quran uses the same word 'alamin' in the following verse "We have not sent you except as a mercy to mankind." (HQ 21:107) in the very next verse it says "Say only it is revealed to me that your god is One God, so will you submit?" (HQ 21: 108)




The most beautiful message delivered by Prophet Muhammad was that mankind is one, because we all share the same creator, and therefore we are all of equal value.

Muhammad, in his last sermon in the year before his death, gave what might be considered a summary of everything that he stood for: 'All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over white except by piety and good action.'

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Was Jesus Crucified?


I had started my journey towards Islam full of misunderstandings, with the belief that I was right, and that my Muslim friends were wrong: out of my love for them it was my duty to guide them to light. But instead what actually happened is that they guided me.

After a five year journey of discovery, I had reached a place of dilemma: I loved my religion, but I loved their religion too. I loved the Gospel (good news) that I read about in the Bible but I couldn't deny the beauty I was discovering in the Quran. I was somewhere between the two. Was I therefore more Christian than Muslim, or more Muslim than Christian? Was there something stopping me accepting Muhammad as a prophet of God, although I was clearly moving towards Islam, and if so what was it?

After stripping out the differences of traditions, histories and rituals that have grown over time and getting down to the fundamental beliefs of Islam and Christianity I found that there were really just two unanswered questions that were stopping me from accepting Muhammad as a prophet and fully embracing Islam. Finding the answers to these two questions I knew would unlock a gate, would help me to move forward on my journey of faith.

These were:

1. Was Jesus crucified?

2. Is Jesus 'divine'?

Here I discuss the matter of the crucifixion.

I had heard a number of different theories to explain verse 4:157 in the Quran. You can read a number of translations here  but I always prefer to look at the Arabic and get a word by word translation to fully appreciate the original revelation. This is sometimes a little difficult to grasp without full understanding of Arabic due to word order and grammar complexities, but reads something like this:

"And for their saying 'indeed we killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Maryam, the messenger of God', and not they killed him and not they crucified him but so it was made to appear to them. And indeed those who differ in this are surely in doubt about it. They do not have any knowledge about it but they are following assumption. And certainly they did not kill him. No, he was raised up by God towards Him. And God is All Mighty, All Wise." HQ 4:157

We know from the context of the previous verses that this passage was talking about the Jews, in regards to any boasting of how they had killed Jesus.

As a Christian I had no difficulty with the part 'And certainly they did not kill him. No, he was raised up by God towards him'. This is entirely in keeping with what is said in the Bible:
"But God raised him up and put an end to suffering of death, since it was impossible for him to be held by it, " Acts 2:24
We are also reminded that martyrs are alive by this verse in the Quran:
"And do not think of those who are killed in the way of Allah as dead. No! They are alive..." HQ 3:169
But to suggest that Jesus had never even been crucified was problematic. I came to learn that for many Muslims what happened to Jesus isn't considered of any great importance, since this is just one passage in the Quran that has a lot of other things to say; it is rather rather a side debate, usually in  my experience to try and prove to the Christians that they got it wrong. But for the Christian, who has understood the beauty in sacrificing your life to save your friends, in not fighting back when provoked but rather transcending oneself spiritually above pain, to then suggest that they were deceived, that Jesus wasn't actually crucified, well this point is a show stopper. If you tell a Christian that Jesus was never crucified it's actually really difficult for them to see past this issue to look at other teachings across Christianity and Islam that are actually exactly the same.

Personally, I really struggled with this matter, because to get this wrong, and to deny Jesus his martyrdom for the message of good news that he brought to the world would surely be a great injustice on my part if I was wrong. This wasn't a matter I could just brush aside.

Seemingly the most common belief expressed by Muslims today, in trying to explain what actually happened to Jesus, is that someone else was crucified in Jesus' place and he was raised to Heaven without experiencing death - the details of which vary depending on who you talk to, taught by which scholar. This theory didn't make much sense to me from a logical viewpoint, but rather seemed like a story that had been constructed through filling in the gaps with some creative thinking. The various theories of substitution also then run into problems of conflict with some other verses in the Quran regarding the death and resurrection of Jesus (see notes below) which people try to explain away without, in my opinion, sounding very convincing.

But then I learnt that there has been much debate on this issue, tracing back to the work of some of the earliest scholars, and even today there are Muslims who believe that Jesus was actually crucified. See here a table listing various Muslim exegetes over the centuries. The 'theory' column lists 6 different arguments that were given by the scholars to explain verse 4:157 as follows:
1. Substitution (someone other than Jesus killed); 2. Dual-spheres (the body of Jesus was crucified, but His soul was not killed); 3. Knowledge (the passage refers not to Jesus being killed but about knowledge being killed, argued from a different interpretation of the grammar); 4. Sovereignty (the Jews may have killed Jesus but God allowed that to happen); 5. Critical/unsure of Substitution; 6. Figurative Docetism (similar to Dual-spheres).

A different understanding to the currently popular view, as seen in the above table, is derived though placing the emphasis on 'they' - as in they, the Jews, did not kill Jesus, but that does not mean to say that Jesus was not actually crucified.

So if it wasn't the Jews who killed Jesus, who was it?

One explanation is that it was God that allowed this to happen. This would fit in perfectly with a very similar verse in the Quran 8:17 where the Muslims were rejoicing following their win at the Battle of Badr, so a verse came to remind them that the victory was actually due to God allowing that to happen and not by their own might. It also confirms what is said in the Bible, Acts 2:23 "This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge".

Another explanation regarding who killed Jesus if it wasn't the Jews is that it was actually the Romans who did, although the Jews were perhaps framed to make it look like it was them, and indeed history has proven that it was actually the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews.

I have come to understand that many verses in the Quran often have a dual meaning, that the ambiguity is there for a purpose: that we might use our reasoning so that truth may be revealed, in its fullness, as we search with sincerity and also as we share our thoughts and listen to the ideas of others.

There is an in depth study here of the scholarly debate of Muslims regarding the crucifixion of Jesus, by Glenn M. Miller who is actually a Christian. I believe we shouldn't be afraid to listen to the ideas of Christians regarding debate over Quranic interpretation, but on the contrary Muslims have been explicitly advised to consult the Christians regarding any revelations of which we may be in doubt:

"So if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to you, then ask those who have been reading the Scripture before you." HQ 10:94
Here is another excellent discussion I found by a student of Islam, Abu Amina Elias:
'Was Jesus Christ crucified or someone else?'

After much prayer for guidance, study and reasoning with sincerity, I conclude that this verse confirms that God allowed Jesus to be crucified, as it was in keeping with His divine plan, and in addition it wasn't actually the Jews who crucified Jesus but the Romans. In allowing this to happen, God raised Jesus up to himself, and he is alive.

I hope that in sharing my thoughts on this matter that other Muslims may be encouraged to reflect carefully on this issue too, before arguing that Jesus was not crucified, since to argue something that may not be true could be preventing many Christians from considering further the Prophethood of Muhammad pbuh and the revelations in the Quran.

The answer to the second question, 'Is Jesus divine?', was something I could reason about but I needed conviction, which eventually came to me by way of personal revelation which I relate here.

Thank-you for reading and reflecting. Allah knows best, may He guide us all.

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Notes

I was asked to include further references to what else is said regarding Jesus in the Quran in regards to his death and resurrection. So as not to make the above discussion too complicated I have included 3 points below (again I give the word by word literal translations that may be a little awkward to read):

1. Some people argue that God would not allow his prophets to be killed. I believe that argument is contradicted by this verse:

"And indeed we gave Moses the book and we followed up from after him with messengers. And we gave Jesus son of Mary clear signs and we supported him with the Holy Spirit. Isn't it so that whenever a messenger came to you with that which you did not desire yourselves you acted arrogantly? So a group you denied and a group you killed." HQ 2:87

2. The following verse has Jesus talking from the cradle about his birth, death and resurrection:

"'And peace be on me the day I was born and the day I die and the day I will be raised alive.' Such was Jesus son of Mary, a statement of truth of which they are in dispute." HQ 19:33-34
Since the substitution theory is that Jesus didn't die on the cross, that someone else did, but that he was raised directly to Heaven still alive, this verse presents a problem, so the explanation continues that this verse refers to Jesus' second coming, when he will die a natural death before being resurrected at the end of time. Personally I find this reasoning a little convoluted.

Note that this verse is almost identical to a verse shortly before, regarding John the Baptist:

"And peace be upon him the day he was born and the day day he dies and the day he will raised alive." HQ 19:15
There is no suggestion here in the grammar that the death was to happen in a future coming. It could be that the repetition of this verse is to remind us that Jesus is human as was John the Baptist. One might then question the meaning of resurrection here, since all people are resurrected after death, but the matter of the resurrection is a separate discussion.


3. There are two verses in the Quran that are frequently translated differently to other instances of the same verb used elsewhere, probably to get around the complication of explaining that Jesus didn't die before being taken to Heaven. This verb 'tawaffa' in 23 times out of 25 is translated as 'to die', but in two instances it is frequently translated instead as 'raised' or 'taken'. The translation of 'taken' is acceptable since the root of the verb lends itself to a literal translation of 'taken back in full', but the instance of 'raised' is doubtful. Below I list the two verses in question with the translation 'to die' in accordance with the other instances, which I believe is more fitting:

"I did not say to them except what you commanded me to, that 'You worship Allah my Lord and your Lord' and I was a witness over them for as long as I was with them, then when you caused me to die you were The Watcher over them, and you are a witness to everything." HQ 5:117
The above verse tells of Jesus giving an account of his life, in the past tense, suggesting that he did die at the end of his life on Earth.
"When God (Allah) said 'O Jesus! Indeed I will cause you to die and raise you to myself and purify you from those who covered up the truth on the Day of Judgement. Then to me is your return and I will judge between you about what you were in it differing." HQ 3:55
Again using the same translation as other instances of this verb, this verse suggests that Jesus did die before being raised to Heaven.