An Examination into Quranic Criticism of Jews, Christians, and Polytheists

N.B.: This was originally written for a class assignment.

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One of the recurrent themes in the Quran is that of prophets being sent in the past, by the same God, to various communities to guide them and the subsequent deviation of some among those communities from that guidance: “Mankind was one community; then God sent the prophets as bearers of glad tidings and as warners. And with them He sent down the Book in truth, to judge among mankind concerning that wherein they differed concerning it, after clear proofs came to them, out of envy among themselves” (2:213). Apart from this deviation, Quran also seems unhappy with the rivalries between Jews and Christians that must have been prevalent during the time of its revelation: “The Jews say, “The Christians stand on nothing,” and the Christians say, “The Jews stand on nothing,” though they recite the Book… God will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they differed” (2:113). Against this backdrop of divergence and rivalry, Quran sees itself as a final reminder attempting to correct what has been, in its view, distorted in the Divine message in the Abrahamic tradition. Additionally, it also sought to reform the polytheistic character of the milieu in which it was revealed. It appears to summon people towards what is believes to be the essence to every messenger’s teaching: monotheism. “We indeed sent a messenger unto every community, “Worship God, and shun false deities!” Then among them were those whom were deserving of error” (16:36).

A number of verses in Quran attempt to make a case for what can be seen as establishing Islam’s supremacy over past traditions and, by extension, directing disapproving polemic towards certain Jews and Christians, which is certainly not unexpected: If Quran had to establish its tradition as a corrective to the ‘distortions’ of the past, it perhaps felt pressed to be unreserved in its description and criticism of what and who, according to its view, were the causes of this distortion. Examining the specific beliefs and acts which Quran deems a deviation from or a rejection of the Divine guidance, this paper will analyze the critical outlook of the Quran towards Jews, Christians, and polytheists, and will also attempt to understand the motivation behind such outlook. It will also attempt to classify the criticism into two broad categories: i) theological criticism: criticism over alleged doctrinal innovation and distortion of Divine Message which presumably necessitated the Revelation of the Quran, and ii) polemic criticism: criticism over certain ‘wrath-invoking’ actions, independent of any doctrinal disagreement, serving as a tool for admonition.

Preliminary considerations

“And indeed We gave Moses the Book and caused a succession of messengers to follow him. And We gave Jesus son of Mary clear proofs, and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. Is it not so that whenever a messenger brought you something your souls did not desire, you waxed arrogant, and some you denied and some you slew” (2:87). This verse illustrates Quran’s honouring the prophets and the traditions they brought on one hand, and its simultaneous censure of some of the recipients of those traditions on the other. Before exploring the Quranic criticism of Jews and Christians, it is important to preface the discussion by making a case that rather than making a universal judgment of condemnation for every single one the followers of Judaism and Christianity, Quran seems to criticize those followers who either, according to Quranic perspective, distorted the message, failed to live up to God’s message to them, or collectively committed acts displeasing to God. This distinction is evident in a number of verses: “And [remember] when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel… Then you turned away, save a few of you, swerving aside” (emphasis added) (2:83). ‘Save a few of you’ implies that even though Quran makes a distinction between those Jews of ancient Israel who went astray and those who did not, it holds that most of them were in the wrong. It is perhaps the idea of majority being deviant which, in Quran’s view, necessitated its own revelation. Moreover, the verse “Neither the disbelievers among the People of the Book nor the polytheists wish that any good be sent down to you from your Lord” (2:105) alludes to the distinction between the ‘disbelievers’ and ‘believers’ among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). In the Quranic view, ‘upright religion’ to which Jews were called entailed monotheism, worship, and alms as exemplified by hanifs or primordial monotheists: “They [Jews and Christians] were not commanded but to worship God, devoting religion entirely to Him, as hanifs, and to perform the prayer, and to give the alms – that is the upright religion. Truly the disbelievers among the People of the Book and the idolaters are in the Fire of Hell, abiding therein; it is they who are the worst of creation” (emphasis added) (98:3-6). Arguably, those Jews and Christians who stayed true to this upright faith, as per the Quranic point of view, are guaranteed salvation by God of the Quran: “Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).

Criticism of Jews:

Following are some of the reasons of criticism of Jews this paper identifies in the Quran: a sense of arrogance and complacence about being God’s chosen people and excessive attachment to the world, distortion of scripture, transgression of Divine Law, and ungratefulness and fickleness.

  1. i) Complacence about being God’s special people, and attachment to the world: Quran repeatedly reminds the Jews of the favour God extended to them by emancipating them from slavery as well as elevating them above other nations: “O Children of Israel! Remember My Blessing which I bestowed upon you, and that I favoured you above the worlds” (2:47). However, Quran also reminds them that even though they had been blessed by God in the past, this should not give them a cause to be so complacent about the hope of being undoubtedly saved through prophetic intercession (2:122-3), for when Abraham inquired God about assuring eternal well-being for all his progeny, God qualified his covenant with Abraham by reminding him that “My covenant does not include the wrongdoers” (2:124). Thus, being historically chosen for Divine favour should not lead to a sense of arrogance and false security about eternal salvation regardless of one’s actions, Quran suggests. It can be inferred that Jews in Medina must have been outspoken in expressing their belief of Jews being God’s special people and therefore successful in the Hereafter, from the instruction God issues to Prophet Muhammad to tell them: “Say, “If the Abode of the Hereafter with God is yours alone to the exclusion of other people, then long for death, if you are truthful. But they will not long for it … You will find them the most covetous of people for life, [even] more than those who are idolaters. Each one of them would wish to live a thousand years” (2:94-6). In other words, if you believe you are saved in the Life after Death by virtue of being dear to God, why are you so attached to this worldly life and heedless about the next one? Quran refers to the Jews in Medina as ‘most covetous for life’ among all people. “It is they [these Jews excessively attached to the world] who have purchased the world at the price of the Hereafter” (2:86). The considerable weight attached to the eschatological themes in the Quran and its approach towards the finality of death and the transience of this life indicate why Quran would rebuke as deluded those individuals it finds excessively attached to this world.
  2. ii) Distortion of scripture: In its second chapter, Quran alleges that the Jews’ scripture is not in its pure form preserved as it was revealed, and makes repeated references to their deliberate distortion of the Divine word: “But those who did wrong substituted a word other than that which had been said unto them. So We sent down a torment from Heaven upon those who did wrong for the iniquity they committed” (2:59). “A party of them would hear the Word of God and then distort it after they had understood it, knowingly?” (2:75). “So woe unto those who write the book with their hands, then say, “This is from God,” that they may sell it for a paltry price. So woe unto them” (2:79). Quranic criticism of Jews allegedly changing their scripture over time, which it terms an ‘iniquity’, explains why God decided a Last Reminder was necessary in the form of a scripture believed to be purely the Word of God untainted by human redaction that He promised He will himself preserve and guard against corruption (15:9).

iii) Transgression of Divine Law: Even when God commanded the Jews not to kill of their own, Quran frowns on a murder committed by the community of Jews in Israel followed by them casting blame upon each other (2:72). God appears particularly displeased when the Jews, allegedly, killed their prophets (2:61, Matthew 23:37 also makes a reference to this killing of prophets by the Jews of Jerusalem). Moreover, 2:65-6 suggest that God was extremely wrathful when the Jews “transgressed in the matter of Sabbath” and so as a punishment, God “made it an exemplary punishment for their time and for times to come.”

iv)Ungratefulness and fickleness: The Jews of Israel were granted a special food by God, the manna, according to the Quranic narrative. 2:61 narrates that these Jews, supposedly blessed, complained to Moses that they “shall not endure one food” and that he should intercede to God to provide them with a variety of delicious foods, to which Moses responded: “Would you substitute what is lesser for what is better? Go down to a town, and you will have what you ask for.” Seemingly, as a consequence of this ingratitude to God’s blessing and greediness for better, “they were struck with abasement and poverty, and earned a burden of wrath from God” (2:61).

Quran also cites a number of anecdotes wherein Jews behaved with fickleness invoking God’s displeasure with them. In 2:246-7 it is narrated that the Jews of Israel asked their prophet to bring a king for them so they would fight in God’s way. However, when Saul was raised as king above them, the same Jews became resentful of him being made sovereign because of their contempt for his poverty and conceit for their own wealth. Save a few, most of them also turned their backs to fighting in God’s way in violation of their earlier promises.

In another instance, when Moses was away for forty nights, his followers took up a calf and began worshipping him at which the God of the Quran seemed disappointed but He chose to pardon them so that they be grateful (2:51-2).

Then “aforetime they (Jews) used to ask for victory over those who disbelieve – so when victory came to them that which they recognized, they disbelieved in it. So may the curse of God be upon the disbelievers” (2:89). This verse is seen as referring to the contemporary Jews living in Medina at the time of Quranic revelation. They were known to have been fighting with the idolaters trustful in the hope of an imminent messenger who would support their cause, but when that Prophet Muhammad began preaching, most of them refused to believe in the truth of his message. Quran views this all of this inconsistent behavior with stern disapproval. It can be argued whether Quran expected, from Jews and Christians of Arabia, ‘religious conversion’ to Islam in complete and modern sense, or merely a belief in the truth of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood and message while retaining their own identities. For them, the latter probably meant the former which explains their hesitation to believe in Prophet Muhammad.

Criticism of Christians:

Quranic criticism directed towards Christians does not appear to be as elaborate as that for the Jews. It mainly pertains to the doctrinal points of their ascribing the status of God’s Son to Jesus, the idea of Trinity, and their alleged alteration of their scripture as well.

Quran views the Christian idea of ‘incarnational sonship’ (viewing Jesus as God’s word made flesh and His son simultaneously) with disapproval because it goes against not only the absolute monotheism of Islam but also one of its fundamental ideas that God does not beget children (112:3). Quran acknowledges the truthfulness of Jesus as a Prophet, grants him an exalted position (4:171), and prefers him above other prophets by degrees (2:253), but it describes asserting the idea that God has taken a son as a “terrible thing” (19:89). This is because the idea of sonship of Jesus tampers with the Quranic idea of the wholly otherness of the God: “That is Jesus son of Mary – a statement of truth, which they doubt. It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him!” (19:34-5, also 2:116). Quran’s rejection of idea in Christian doctrine of Jesus’ sonship comes out of its believing that Christians view this concept in a literal sense. It can be argued whether this idea is a popular perception, or a normative concept: whether Christian theologians treat this idea literally (For instance, many Christian theologians consider the word ‘begotten’ son in the Gospel of John (1:18) as a later interpolation) or simply as a reality which cannot be taken in a physical sense. In any case, Quran discourages parental images for God, and does not employ them even metaphorically.

Christian view of Trinity is also explicitly criticized: “So believe in God and His messengers, and say not “Three.” Refrain! It is better for you. God is only one God (4:171).” Quran assumes this doctrine to be also in violation of the uncompromising tawhid that Islam stands for. It will be beyond the scope of this paper to examine the normative view of Trinity but it is interesting to point out that some formulations of the Trinitarian doctrine claim to both assert and preserve God’s unity, viewing God one and three at the same time, simultaneously manifested in the idea of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Quran’s insistence on Oneness, however, leaves no room for any such triune symbols.

Like Jews, Christians are also accused of losing or changing their scripture, some of it may have been a result of innocent forgetfulness: “they forgot part of that whereof they were reminded (5:14)” and some of deliberate concealment: “Our Messenger has come unto you, making clear to you much of what you once hid of the Book (5:15).”

Before we go on to examine the significance of this criticism, it will be important to examine Quran’s view of Abraham. Quran strives to distinguish itself from both Jews and Christians and claim the symbol of Abraham for itself. God tells the Prophet Muhammad that Jews and Christians will only be happy with him if he follows their creed (2:120), and he is commanded to respond to them by saying “Rather [ours is] the creed of Abraham, a hanif” (2:135). When the Jews and Christians claimed that prophets including Abraham were Jews or Christians, the Prophet was instructed to rhetorically ask if they believe they know more than God (2:140). This implies that the God of the Quran does not consider Abraham to be Jew or a Christian, but simply a hanif, a primordial monotheist, and the Muslims to be the true followers of his creed. In light of this contest to claim the symbol of Abraham, it does not come as a surprise that Muslims are required to send blessings on Abraham five times a day during their ritual prayers at the same time when they send blessings on the Prophet Muhammad.

Criticism of polytheists:

Though Jews and Christians are chastised by the Quran for distorting God’s guidance to them and failing to act in line with His commands, the polytheists in Arabia are seen as people who had not been warned earlier and Prophet Muhammad was sent to guide them: “that thou [Muhammad] mayest warn a people whose fathers were not warned; so they were heedless” (55:6). Thus, criticism towards these polytheists does not arise of any historical deviation from guidance on their part, but their stubbornness in not responding to the Prophet Muhammad’s message of monotheism. They are reprimanded mainly for i) associating partners with God and expecting intercession through them, and ii) being stubbornly ungrateful to God’s bounties.

Pre-Islamic Arab polytheists believed in a pantheon of deities and Allah was considered to be a supreme deity in a polytheistic pantheon. Other deities, particularly the three goddesses Al-‘Uzza, al-Lat and Manah were believed to be able to make intercession to the high God. Quran severely rejects this practice of associating partners with God in the hope of any benefit to be received from these deities: “Then on the Day of Resurrection He will disgrace them and say, “Where are My partners on whose account you were defiant?”” (19:27). Quran intended for polytheists to center the divine within a single God, but monotheism cannot be seen as an innovative idea put forth by the Quran in Arabia since historically there were some hanifs in that region who subscribed to that position already. Quran was, in fact, more radically so stressing on a complete elimination of idols from the religious milieu of Arabia which is evident in its uncompromising tone it adopts towards polytheism.

Moreover Quran, interestingly, equates the absence of monotheism to a lack of gratitude and insight. Quran urges the polytheists to ponder upon the logic of their beliefs by reflecting whether the idols they worship seem capable to them of creating the wonderfully intricate world they observe around them: “And they worship, apart from God, that which has no power over any provision that may come to them from the heavens and the earth; nor are they capable [of such] (16:73).” Quran seems to argue that once people begin to reflect on the ‘signs’ in the universe, that is natural world, and the numerous blessings they are bestowed with, it becomes almost commonsense to have faith in One Omnipotent God. This is why Quran finds it surprising that the polytheists enjoy all the blessings of this world, the assistance provided by the cattle, the variety of foods and drinks they enjoy and “yet they have taken gods other than God, that perhaps they may be helped. They cannot help them,” (36:74-5). Thus, evidently, Quran equates polytheism with ingratitude, and suggests that polytheists’ ascribing partners to God is an act of ungratefulness: “behold, a group among you ascribes partners to God. So let them be ungrateful for that which We have given them: “Enjoy yourselves! For soon you will know””(16:54-5). In the same vein, it is interesting to note that the Arabic word ‘kafir’ generally rendered as ‘infidel’ or ‘disbeliever’ has a root meaning of kufr which signifies ‘lack of gratitude’. Lack of belief, in God’s eyes, is intrinsically intertwined with lack of thankfulness: gratitude for bounties of life should ideally lead one to reflect on the source of those bounties which in turn leads to reverence for and faith in that Source.

Conclusion

After having analyzed the Quranic criticism towards Jews, Christians, and polytheists, it is important to briefly conjecture the possible motivations behind these objections in order to put them into perspective. Criticism advanced towards Jews and Christians can be seen in two broad categories: Doctrinal criticism which can be seen as an end in itself, and polemical criticism which can be viewed as a tool employed as a means to another end.

It is to be noted that objections such as distortion of scripture by the Jews and Christians, and towards Christian belief of Jesus’ sonship and the Trinity can be seen as indispensable points of theological disagreement from the perspective of Quran.  As seen earlier, the Christian doctrines were disapproved by the Quran because of their alleged violation of monotheistic principles. Quran views itself not only as a continuation of the Old and New Testaments but its culmination; it sees its message to be in line with the original Torah (2:89). However, it also asserts that these earlier revelations were not preserved in their original form, and that they were corrupted in transmission. Thus, Quran viewed its message as the word of God through Prophet Muhammad and as a corrective reform to the alleged distortion of Divine message by the past communities. It is in this spirit that Quran seems eager to elaborate on those distortions because these elaborations acted as justifications for the need of the Quran, almost its raison d’être. If Quran had agreed with all the subsequent developments in the Christian and Jewish theologies, including the scriptural redactions as well as doctrinal innovations, it would have failed to furnish adequate reason and urgency for the need of a new Revelation from the God of Jews and Christians.

Moreover, Quran’s emphasis on the alleged defects and limitations, irrespective of whether due to deliberate or circumstantial reasons, in these earlier scriptures helped it develop this contrast whereby it could present itself as the final and infallible revelation by God (5:48, 15:9). The infallibility of Quran is an important idea which has led the Muslims to live as a scripture-centered community. Quran’s casting doubts on the purity of earlier scriptures can be attributed to its viewing scripture having a central importance in a tradition; a loss of scripture means the loss of tradition. This importance of scripture can be seen in the way Quran, instead of opening with “In the beginning there was …”, commences with “This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for the reverent” (Chapter 2 considered as formal beginning). Also, in an interestingly unique way Quran appears to be self-conscious of its status as a scripture: it repeatedly refers to itself as book or scripture throughout the text even when it was revealed piecemeal. Quran’s reference to Jews and Christians as ‘People of the Book’ is another telling notion pointing not only to Quran’s emphasis on the centrality of scripture but also its role as a linkage between Abrahamic traditions.

On the other hand, the second category of criticism pointing to alleged human failings of historical Jewish communities and highlighting their certain qualities and acts such as the sense of complacence, transgression of laws, ungratefulness, and fickleness of the Jews can be seen as polemical rhetoric unrelated to any theological disagreements. Arguably, these are not the points of criticism that could help Quran establish the basis for its need: such flaws and failings may creep into a section of any community that, arguably, do not necessarily have to trigger the need for a new Revelation reminding the basic precepts of God’s message as long as the message itself remained intact normatively. The reason of the inclusion of these accounts can be viewed as didactic: a tool for warning against certain patterns of behavior marked by ingratitude, too much attachment to the world, and transgression for instance. According to the Quran, these failings incurred God’s wrath and hence should serve as “an admonition to the reverent” (2:66): to remind to the followers of Quran to be warned against the consequences of displeasing God by bearing in mind the example of Jews. This is evident in the strong language Quran invokes when narrating these historical accounts. Quran, in its overall character, is to be viewed as predominantly doctrinal and indirectly historical, unlike other Abrahamic scriptures which are the reverse. The historical anecdotes in the Quran are interspersed into various places, not as linear narratives but, as references in order to support the ideas. In view of this framework, Quranic anecdotes chastising historical Jews can also be viewed as having a purpose beyond themselves: moral instruction through inculcating the fear of divine retribution.

Lastly, Quran’s criticism of the Arabian polytheists for ascribing partners with God, linking it with lack of discernment and gratitude, seems expected in the light of the unqualified urgency Quran attaches to its idea of absolute and uncompromising monotheism. Quran’s plain refusal to accommodate or negotiate over any polytheistic practices of Arabia is, again, expected in light of its purported aim, which was to reestablish the monotheistic legacy of Abraham, the prime idol-breaker.

References

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein., Carner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds. The Study Quran: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.