Creating Harmony among Christians, Jews, and Muslims through Comparative Translation

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Religion is supposed to provide guidance for human beings so they can better honor and glorify God and live peacefully with others, especially with those who share the belief in the same Creator.  But the percentage of those among the followers of the three Abrahamic religions who seem to resent or flat out hate each other is much higher than those who understand religion to be a tool for deeper understanding and peaceful cooperation.  Religion is thought to have failed to accomplish its purpose, which raises the question whether its role and practice need rehabilitation.

The post-September 11 world is seized with the dangers of religious extremism and conflict among religious communities, particularly between two or more of the Abrahamic faiths: Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  The threat of religious extremism is real and well documented. The connection between religion and conflict is becoming commonplace.  The many other dimensions and impacts of religion tend to be downplayed or even neglected entirely, as if Huntington’s hypothesis about the Clash of Civilizations were now proven and the conflict between the Judeo-Christian civilization and Islam were inevitable.

The contribution that religion can make to peacemaking — as the flip side of religious conflict — is only beginning to be explored and understood.  All three of the Abrahamic faiths have a similar essence and they contain strong warrants for justice, peacemaking, and harmony.

How can we rehabilitate the role of religion in today’s world, so religion will be a tool to establish peace rather than violence?

The Earliest Attempt at Harmony between Islam and Christianity

The 7th day in the month of Ramadan in the year 610 A.C. was like any other day that Mohammad spent in solitude in a cave high above Mecca, as he became accustomed to do every Ramadan.  But that night changed his life.  He had fallen asleep in the cave when he suddenly was awakened with an overwhelming feeling of a spiritual presence.  A mighty spiritual being was there.  Mohammad must have been terrified, especially when it enveloped him in a terrifying embrace so that it felt as though his very breath was being squeezed from his body.

The spirit appearing as a man gave him one command: “Iqra’!” (“Recite!”) Mohammad protested in vain that he was illiterate, but the command was issued twice more, and each time he would feel he was reaching the end of his endurance and he uttered the same response.  Finally, the spirit released him, and Mohammad found divinely inspired words pouring out of his mouth[1]:

“Recite in the name of your Lord who created; created the human being from a clinging substance.  Recite! Your Lord is the Most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught the human being that which he knew not”.  (Qur’an 96:1-5)

The spirit was not asking him to read but to recite the words God puts in his mouth.  Thus, began the magnificent story of God’s last testament to humanity.

Muhammad at that moment was terrified as a man pursued.  As he tumbled down the mountain, he heard a great voice crying, “Mohammad! You are the Messenger of God, and I am Gabriel!”  He looked upwards, and the spirit filled the horizon.  Wherever he turned, the figure was there, inescapably present.  He rushed home, running, falling, crawling, and shaking, and cried to Khadijah: “Cover me! Cover me!”  She laid him down, placing a cloak over him, held him in her arms, soothing him and trying to calm him.  As soon as he had recovered a little, he told her what had happened and shared his fears that he might be now possessed by a spirit.  Mohammad was terrified.  She held him close and comforted him:

“Never!  By God!  God will never disgrace you.  You keep good relations with your relatives, help the poor, serve your guests generously, and assist those affected by calamities”.[2]  She saw in her husband a virtuous man — who is honest and just, given to helping the poor.  The first person on the face of the earth to believe in the Message entrusted to Mohammad was his own wife, Khadijah.  At once, she went to see an older male cousin, Waraqa[3], a Hanif, who had become a follower of Jesus and had studied the Scriptures.   After hearing from her about Mohammad’s experience, Waraqa recognized him from Bible prophecies to be the awaited prophet, and he confirmed that what had appeared to him in the cave was indeed the Holy Spirit:

It was the Angel of Revelation who had come to him, just as he had come to Moses, and he added, “I wish I were young”.[4]

Waraqa was an open-minded man; he converted from idol worshipping to Christianity and could understand that what had been given to Muhammad is a revelation.  This is a fine example of pursuing harmony between a well-known Christian of his time and the would-be Prophet.

Many examples of attempting harmony followed, including the example of the Abyssinian King (Negus) and the first Muslim immigrants, but the most significant was the Prophet’s first important encounter with Christian clergies in the 9th year of Hijra (631 A.C.), one or two years before his death, with the Najran’s Christian delegation.

These examples show that Christians and Muslims were attempting to have harmony from day one.  They succeeded in reaching agreement sometimes but they were less successful at other times.  Accepting differences was the first step in establishing peaceful relations between the Christians and Prophet Muhammad some fourteen hundred years ago.

Today there are political attempts by the religious right in the United State to rewrite history and to present the conflict with Islam as if it were inevitable, because Islam they say was all along aggressive, it spread through endless wars and lacked tolerance toward others.  Aggression was the character of its prophet and it is part of its holy book the Qur’an.

        This campaign of hatred resulted in exaggerated fear and hostility toward Islam and Muslims perpetuated by negative stereotypes that result in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from social, political, and civic life.

        Interfaith meetings are a principal tool among the many ways people are using to negate the campaign of hatred.  They are held on many levels, but among neighbors they have become mainly a process of embracing members of other religions for the purpose of finding common ground in the values and goals that the three Abrahamic religions share.  The love of God, love of the neighbor and of human dignity, and mutual respect are an integral part of the Abrahamic traditions and are part of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

People, however, still need tools to facilitate the harmony they seek.  Hence the new book:  the Qur’an with references to the Bible.

Is Harmony in the Scriptures a sufficient basis for Harmony among those who claim these Books

The Qur’an is an ecumenical book.  Its message to its followers urges them to recognize the believers of Judaism and Christianity, as well as others.  It teaches:

Truly those believe in this message, as well as the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabeans, whoever believes in God and in the Last Day and does righteous deeds will have their reward from their Lord, and will not have fear, nor will they grieve. (2:62)

It also urges the Prophet (pbuh), as well as his followers, to recognize, love, and honor the followers of other Abrahamic religions:

Say, “We believe in God and what was revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, what was given to Moses and Jesus, and what was given to the prophets from their Lord.  We do not distinguish between any of them, and we submit to Him.” (2:136)

Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) signed treaties with the Jewish tribes around Medina to make sure that they would live in peace with their neighbors.  He also gave covenants to the Christians[5] after Muslims became a force to reckon with in Arabia to ensure their safety and peaceful existence and cooperation with Muslims.  Yet the question here is not what the Qur’an urges or how to follow the Prophet’s example but how Muslim theologians responded historically to the call to be ecumenical and how modern Muslim theologians are responding to the existential challenges facing Muslims today?

Translating the Qur’an can be a very sensitive and complex undertaking, especially when you want to see it with fresh eyes, as if it were revealed yesterday.  The problems start with Chapter 1: Al-Fatiha[6] [The Opening].  What did God mean to tell us in the last two verses of this chapter? “Guide us to the straight path, (01:06) The path of those whom You have blessed, with whom You are not angry, and who have not gone astray”.[7] (2:07).

Who are those people with whom God is angry, or those who have gone astray?  If we go to the classical commentators, such as Ibn Kathir[8], Al Baghawi[9], and many recent ones, such as Muhammad bin Saleh al Uthaymin (March 9, 1925 – January 10, 2001), a Sunni Salafi scholar of Saudi Arabia, they say that these people mentioned in these verses are the Jews and the Christians.

There is no attempt to build harmony here.  How can this be when the Qur’an itself urges the believers to be kind and to respect the People of the Book?

Without going into a lot of details, it seems that the same phenomenon that happened to Christians after Constantine decided to make Christianity the official state religion happened to Muslim scholars after the state became an empire.  The ability to conquer and defeat the two major empires of that time, the Byzantine and the Persian, and the expansion of the Empire, in record time, to places beyond the imagination of Muslims at that time, probably made them arrogant.

In my translation of the Qur’an, I simply translated what the Qur’an says without inserting my personal commentary.  This position is based on reason.  The exactly intended word is used by God to mean exactly what it says.  Hence, if God wanted to say Jews and Christians, He would have said that.  

Another major problem encountered while translating the Qur’an, was the word Islam.  In order to best understand the word, I tried to put myself in the shoes of the first Arabs who heard it.  What did they understand when they heard it for the first time?  Was it the name of a new religion?  Not likely.  Islam is a verb of submission with its root salam meaning peace.  The first Arabs hearing this must have understood it as a verb calling one to submit to God’s will.

Say, “Why should I take a master for myself other than God, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, when it is He who feeds and needs not to be fed?” Say, “I am commanded to be the first [among you] to submit myself to Him and not be among the idolaters.” (6:14)

Yet it is not only the Qur’an that calls for submission.  We find this call to submit in Jewish as well as Christian scriptures:

In Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV / 152: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.

Psalm 40:8:  I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart.”

The New Testament explicitly calls believers to submit to God.  In the Epistle of James 4:7-8 we read: “Submit yourselves therefore to God.  Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 4:8  Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded”.[10]

Then in Matthew 26:39 we read: “And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, ‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will’.”

All the prophets of God submitted to Almighty God and called their people to submit to the One and only God.  The only true religion as far as God is concerned (after discarding the labels) is Submission to God (Islam).

Unfortunately, “there remains little concentrated effort to preserve the Qur’anic voice in its original context, or highlight the voices from either side that employ the Qur’an as a builder of bridges, rather than builders of walls between Christianity and Islam”.[11]

Corrie John Block’s important study, Expanding the Qur’anic Bridge, found “that there is tremendous ecumenical ground between Christianity and Islam in the voices of their own scholars, expanding from a period of declining ecumenism during the first three centuries of Islam, to a period of resurging ecumenism during the most recent century until now.  This study also finds, highlighted among the ecumenical voices in the Christian-Muslim dialogue, that the Qur’an itself is possibly among the strongest of those voices”.[12]

Establishing harmony among Jews, Christians and Muslims should not be merely a thematic issue but should be contextual and substantive.  It can take many forms but when it comes to the translation of holy books, harmony can take place only if we together shed light on the origin of God’s message and the commonalities expressed through it.  These commonalities have to be meaningful enough to sway the followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to take a serious look at the message and join hands together.

All Abrahamic holy books claim that the origin of the message is God, our Creator.  They all claim that God is one.  They all claim that God is loving and Merciful.

While this approach is sufficient to build harmony with some Christians,[13] it is not for others.

When 138 leading Muslim scholars, clerics, and intellectuals from around the world, signed an open letter called “A Common Word Between Us and You” and identified some core common ground between Christianity and Islam that lies at the heart of their respective faiths, as well as at the heart of the most ancient Abrahamic faith, Judaism, hundreds of Christian scholars responded favorably saying, “Jesus Christ’s call to love God and neighbor was rooted in the divine revelation to the people of Israel embodied in the Torah (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:18).  We receive the open letter as a Muslim hand of conviviality and cooperation extended to Christians worldwide.  In this response we extend our own Christian hand in return, so that together with all other human beings we may live in peace and justice as we seek to love God and our neighbors”.

Yet not all Christians were happy with the Common Word’s innocent call to harmony.  Many in the United States and abroad objected.  Their objections were summarized by The Very Rev. Canon Robert S. Munday[14]. “Essentially”, he asks[15], “Do the men and women who signed this document really understand what they have signed?” Do they understand that Islam always has been and always will be fundamentally opposed to the foundational beliefs of Christianity?  Do these people not realize that Muslims will and must reject the authority of Scripture, the divinity of Jesus, the existence of the Trinity, the atoning death and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ?”

So how can we establish harmony among the followers of the Abrahamic religions? For this Muslim the Qur’an gave me a recipe that I decided to follow.  It says:

We have assigned to each of you a law and a way of life.  If God had wanted, He could have made all of you a single community, but instead He is testing you by means of what He has revealed to you.  So compete in doing what is good. You will all return to God, and He will clarify these matters about which you have differed.  (5:48)

We have only one way open to us; we need to be persistent in serving each other and humanity.  Muslims have to lead the way in order to bring out the best in each other.  Unless we are able to regain lost trust and use wisdom we will not be able to bring about harmony.

 

[1] This might be what Deuteronomy 18:18 refers to “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him” (Deuteronomy 18:18 – KJV).  Christians, however, do not believe it refers to Muhammad.

[2] Sahih al-Bukhari

[3] Ibn Hisham, I, 236-238.

[4] Al-Bukhari, Muhammad ibn Isma’il, Sahih al-Bukhari, Dar al-Fikr, (Arabic-English Edition), I, 2-3

[5] The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World, paperback – November 2, 2013, by John Andrew Morrow (Author).

[6] Al-Fatiha, is also known as Fatihat al-Kitab (The Opening of the Book).  Recitation of this Chapter is an obligatory part of Salat (daily prayer).  Muslims memorize this chapter and recite it at the beginning of each of the five daily prayers and all other voluntary prayers.

[7] Translation mine, The Qur’an a Contemporary Understanding.

[8] Ismail ibn Kathir (Arabic: ابن كثير‎‎, born 1300, died 1373 A.C.) was a highly influential Sunni scholar of the Shafi’i school during the Mamluk rule of Syria, an expert on tafsir (Quranic exegesis) and fiqh (Islamic rules and regulations), as well as a historian. Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Surat Al Fatihah)

[9] Tafsīr al-Baghawī (Arabic: تفسير البغوي‎‎), also known as Ma‘ālim al-Tanzīl, is a classical Sunni tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) by Husayn bin Mas’ūd al-Baghawī (d. 1122), written as an abridgement of Tafsīr al-Tha’labī (d. 1035)

[10] http://biblia.com/bible/esv/James%204.7-8

[11] Expanding the Qur’anic Bridge, Corrie John Block.  https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10036/3466/BlockC.pdf?sequence=1

[12] Ibid

[13] “A Common Word” Christian Response. http://faith.yale.edu/common-word/common-word-christian-response

[14] http://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/article/nashotah-house-extends-robert-mundays-contract-dean

[15] http://www.challies.com/articles/a-common-word-a-common-faith

 

About the author

Safi Kaskas

Dr. Safi Kaskas is a management executive and a strategist with more than 40 years of broad-based experience in strategic planning, leadership, and business ethics, with an emphasis on strategic management in the corporate and academic worlds.  He has led large corporations and trading companies, and has pioneered numerous successful start-up consulting engagements for clients in the areas of trade and industry in both the United States and Saudi Arabia.  Kaskas is a co-founder of East West University in Chicago, Illinois, and was elected as president of its board of directors from 1979 to 2005. Under his board leadership, East West  University acquired its accreditation from the North Central Association and developed a strong fundraising network that built a solid foundation for its continued growth.  Kaskas continues to serve as a member of the University’s board of directors.

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Safi Kaskas

Dr. Safi Kaskas is a management executive and a strategist with more than 40 years of broad-based experience in strategic planning, leadership, and business ethics, with an emphasis on strategic management in the corporate and academic worlds.  He has led large corporations and trading companies, and has pioneered numerous successful start-up consulting engagements for clients in the areas of trade and industry in both the United States and Saudi Arabia.  Kaskas is a co-founder of East West University in Chicago, Illinois, and was elected as president of its board of directors from 1979 to 2005. Under his board leadership, East West  University acquired its accreditation from the North Central Association and developed a strong fundraising network that built a solid foundation for its continued growth.  Kaskas continues to serve as a member of the University’s board of directors.

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