Explaining the Qur’ans Favouritism Towards Christians

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Dear Friends. The author of the following article, Mun’im Sirry, is a Muslim scholar from Indonesia who I met recently during a visit there. He has worked closely with a number of researchers re-looking at the origins of Islam, lecturing at the University of Chicago and Notre Dam University during the past few years. In 2015 Mun’im Sirry published his latest book in Indonesian “The Controversy of Islamic Origins: Between traditionalists and Revisionists.” This article, contributed in an Indonesian online paper, presents one of the key topics related to the origins of Islam. (Further comments are from myself below the article)

Why does the Qur’an show favouritism towards Christians? I have thought about this question for a long time. Before I answer this question, what is the basis to even claim this.

I realise it is not easy for Muslims to acknowledge this favouritism. During the classical era of Islam, there was a tendency in Islamic literature to be anti-Christian. This is easily understood, because the literature was produced in a political climate of high tension between Muslims and Christians. During this period from the 9 to the 12 century, there was a significant Christian population in the Middle East, even out-numbering the Muslim population in most countries. It was in this environment an anti-Christian polemic emerged filling Islamic literature, despite the Qur’an being favourable towards Christians.

Examples of a favourable position towards Christians in contrast to the Jews

We come across a number of criticisms in the Qur’an concerning Christian doctrine in Arabia. I have discussed this theme in my book, Scriptural Polemics: The Quran and Other Religions (2014). Despite this, the Qur’an also speaks affectionately, and even has favouritism, towards Christians. This is in contrast to the environment in Medina, when there was an anti-Jewish sentiment. In the Qur’an in Surah 5:82, which contains many polemical verses, there is a contrast between Jews and Christians as follows.

You will find the people with the greatest animosity towards those who believe being Jews and those who are polytheists; and you will find the closest in affection to those who believe are those who say: “We are Christians,” that is because among them are Priests and Monks, and they are not arrogant. (QS 5:82)

I can give a personal testimony in regards to this verse. In my coming from Indonesia in my first year as a lecturer at Notre Dam University, I was asked to give my first public lecture concerning the criticisms in the Qur’an about Christianity. The response was quite amazing to me, as people spoke to me about how they felt a need to be more humble in understanding the critical spirit in the Qur’an.

Concerning the accusation of the distortion of scriptures (tahrif), the Qur’an differentiates between Jews and Christians in Arabia. If we look at the Surah Al-Maidah, the Jews are accused of distorting their scriptures.

We (God) have made their hearts become hardened; they take the words out of context; and they forgot much of what they were reminded of. (QS 5:13)

If we compare this with the Qur’an’s accusation concerning Christians in the following verse, Christians have forgotten the contents of their Scriptures. There is no punishment for Christians, except that there is division and enmity amongst them.

They (Christians) have forgotten much of what they were reminded of. (QS 5:14)

As a further example, the Qur’an clearly supports Rome in the Roman /Persian conflict. This is expressed in the Qur’an in the Surah named Al-Rum. After the Romans were defeated by Persia, the Roman army was predicted by the Qur’an to return to reclaim victory. The interesting thing is that upon that victory, the believers will rejoice (verse 4)

So, we come back to the question, why does the Qur’an rejoice in the victory of the Roman Empire, that is, Christians? What is their connection with Islam?

The answer to this question for the German scholars Gunter Luling and Christoph Luxenburg was clear. They viewed the Qur’an’s pro Christian stance being because, for them, it was originally a Christian text. For Luling, he argued that the original Qur’an text, which he called Ur-kurn, is a Christian hymn from Arabia that was Islamised at Muhammad’s time, and after.

Somewhat similarly, Luxenberg declared that the Qur’an was not a Christian text from Arabia, but was based upon Christian-Syriac sources, understanding the foundational language of the Qur’an was not Arabic, but Syriac.

Luling and Luxenberg created a lot of controversy. For Luling, the controversy was created within the academic world. For Luxenberg, the controversy was created throughout the mass media, including front cover of the Time Magazine. Many scholars have debated the arguments of Luling and Luxenberg. However, besides agreement with some specific points, in my view it requires almost a conspiracy theory to adopt the totality of their argument.

Despite this, there is a need to continue to have a deeper study concerning the Qur’an and its surrounding context. There is a need to understand the birth of Islam, not in isolation from Christianity, which has been the assumption traditionally within Islam, but it’s inter-connectedness with Christianity. With this, we can further understand the interaction between the Qur’an and Christianity in a greater way, until we obtain a clearer understanding in regards to why the Qur’an speaks favourably of Christians. Mun’im Sirry

A Further Note from Myself: The growing consensus amongst many who are studying this field is that, despite understanding Luling and Luxenberg as extreme in their views, Islam originally was not a distinct religion as we know it today. Instead it was very much inter-connected with Christianity. For further information on this, please refer to the Book Summaries by Fred Donner and G.R. Hawting on the resources page.

Warm Regards

Robert

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