Islam’s Forgotten Road to Interfaith harmony

Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D.

Board Member,MCA, President, Pacific Institute for Islamic Studies, Honolulu, and President, All Believers Network, Honolulu.

While Muslims consider Islam a religion of peace, many non-Muslims equate it with terrorism. After all, the Qur’an carries passages such as:

1. Do not trust Jews and Christians (Qur’an 5.51); and

2. Fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them. Seize them, beleaguers them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) (9.5).

In response, Muslims point to other Qur’anic messages, such as:

3. Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians, and the Sabians – any who believe in God and the Last Day and work righteousness – shall have their reward with their Lord (Qur’an 2:62); and

4. If one among the pagans asks you for asylum, grant it to him, so that he may hear the word of God. And then escort him to where he will be secure (9.6).

Why do such diametrically opposite signals exist in the Qur’an?

I believe these represent the three stages of Muhammad’s prophethood. (a) 610-622 CE: As a marked man in Mecca, seeking followers; (b) 622-631 CE: As a warrior in Medina, fighting for survival; and (c) 631-632 CE: As a statesman in Mecca, leading a nation of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

However, since the Qur’an is not arranged chronologically, we cannot capture this evolutionary development from this book.

Prophet Muhammad was illiterate. Thus, whenever he received a revelation, he would ask someone to transcribe it. He had about 20 such transcribers over those 23 years. Lacking a “central repository of verses”, however, each transcriber apparently maintained his own collection, written on an assortment of materials described below. These transcriptions were probably also not dated.

After Muhammad died, caliph, Abu Bakr commissioned Zaid bin Thabit, to collect all verses. Zaid reports: “. . . I started compiling the Qur’an from the leafless stalks of the date palm tree and from the pieces of leather and hides and from the stones, and from the chests of men (who had memorized the Qur’an). . . (Hadith: Bukhari 9.301).

We don’t know Zaid’s rationale for arranging verses in the order we find them in the Qur’an. For example, instead of being in the first Surah (chapter), the very first guidance Muhammad reportedly received in 610 CE appears in the 96th (out of 114 Surahs).

While this non-chronological arrangement does not impact the Qur’an’s spiritual message (such as)

God’s attributes and wonders of creation) as these have permanency, it impacts significantly its temporal message as different verses guided Muhammad on how to respond to different situations. Not having this knowledge, however, individuals follow whichever guidance suits their agenda – for war or peace – without being challenged on religious grounds.

Fortunately, by clarifying that later guidance on any subject abrogated earlier guidance, Qur’an’s verse 2.106 extricates us from this quagmire. And the earliest extant book on Muhammad, written by Ibn Ishaq within 150 years of Muhammad’s death, provides the chronology and context of several important verses (Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad. Karachi: Oxford University Press. 1955).

I learned that Verse 1 was revealed shortly after Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina (622 CE) and faced unknown enemies; and Verse 2, on returning to Medina from Tabuk (631 CE) and finding that some pagans had created anarchy during his absence. Verse 4 must have been revealed shortly thereafter as Muhammad did not punish anyone (as directed by Verse 2). And Verse 3 was part of the last guidance he received, just before his death in 632 CE (Ahmed, 2008). By then, he had conquered Arabia and no longer faced danger. Thus, passages of peace superseded passages of war.

Islam’s role in promoting interfaith harmony
Apart from several other verses promoting peace, Muhammad also clarified that God sent 124,000 messengers the world over from the beginning of time with the same message of monotheism and righteousness (Muzammil Siddiqi, www Pakistan Link, Nov. 24, 2007). Consider, for example, these descriptions of the Revered One by some messengers:

8. He is the Omniscient Lord. He is not born; He does not die. Smaller than the smallest, greater than the greatest, He dwells within the hearts of all. Though seated, He travels far; though seated, He moves all things. Formless is He, though inhabiting form. In the midst of the fleeting, he abides forever. He is
all pervading and supreme; and

9. He has no set form, but can manifest Himself in any form. Though we describe His attributes, yet He has no set attributes, but can manifest Himself in any and all excellent attributes. . . . Being formless and without substance, He has always been and will always be. It is not a physical body that must be nourished; it is an eternal body whose substance is Wisdom. He has neither fear nor disease. He is eternally changeless. . . . His body fills every corner of the Universe; it reaches everywhere; it exists forever regardless of whether we believe in Him or doubt His existence.

Passage 8 describes Brahm in the Hindu sacred book, Upanishads; and Passage 9, Amida Buddha in The Eternal Buddha (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai, 1997, pp 48 52).

Thus, aren’t Brahm and Amida Buddha synonymous with God?

Finding similar descriptions of the Supreme Being in several other sacred texts led to the formation of the All Believers Network ( Its board has individuals from the following faiths: Baha’i, Buddhism, Christianity, Daoism, Hawaiian Spirituality, Hinduism, Indigenous Religions, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Mormonism, Seicho-No-Ie, Sikhism, Subud, Sufism, Unitarian Universalism, Unity, and Zoroastrianism. We seek members from other religions as well.

Looking ahead
With Islam reportedly being the fastest-growing religion worldwide (due largely to a higher birth rate among Muslims), there is an urgent need for a concerted long-term international educational effort to promote the concept of abrogation of verses – and recognize followers of all spiritual religions as fellow-travelers en route to the same Destination. Hopefully, zealots will then realize that, by killing others, they are dishonoring their beloved prophet.

This is also a plea to followers of other religions to similarly re-examine any passages of exclusion in their sacred texts, try to understand the context of revelation, and re-connect with other, “inclusionary”, passages which might have been forgotten in an effort to promote a “holier than thou” psyche.

Hopefully, these efforts will lead to true inter-faith harmony.

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