II. THE SEARCH FOR TRUTH
A. Life in a Cosmopolitan Centre
In the 1950’s, as now, it was difficult to get a seat in a medical college in India. At that time student admission was based purely on merit. No donations were requested. No one suggested the candidate change his religion or caste. To be sure, the seats in the medical colleges were limited and the standards were high. But anyone who scored 60 percent marks or more in a pre-university course was almost automatically admitted. By God's grace I succeeded.
In June 1952, I entered Grant Medical College in Bombay. This college was truly a cosmopolitan institution. The student body represented a wide variety of nations, languages and religions.
Up to that time, my circle of friends was limited to Muslims and a few Hindus. Though I knew little about my own religion, I knew enough to be reserved in my relations with Hindus whom Muslims consider to be unbelievers and idolaters and, therefore, unfit to be friends (3:28; 4:139,144, etc.). I simply assumed they considered their stone idols to be gods and worshipped them, although I never really cared to ask them for their opinion.
My attitude towards Christians was similar. I knew the Qur'an mentioned their holy books (Torah, Psalms and Gospel) but never felt any need for more information about them. They too were polytheists, worshippers of three gods, among whom was Jesus, "Son of God". Moreover, they were skilled in converting others to their faith. Our religious leaders advised us to move only with Muslims and to avoid others, who were simply unbelievers, polytheists or hypocrites, and doomed to hell. (2:120; 3:100, 118; 5:51, 57; 66:9; 98:6)
But which Muslim could heed this advice seriously in such a college, especially when most of the nurses, whose help and co-operation were indispensable, were Christians? I soon abandoned the advice of my elders, especially when I began to enjoy association with Christian teachers and fellow students. At times, we exchanged ideas about our respective beliefs, though these conversations were hardly profound. Nevertheless, I remained proud to be a Muslim. But it began to bother me that Christian friends would be deprived of paradise because of their wrong beliefs.
What impressed me especially about Christians was that their deeds so often conformed with their words. They not only talked about loving others, helping the needy and being ready to suffer, but they practised what they preached. Is this why, though some Qur’anic verses disparage Christians, other verses speak favourably about them?
Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee. Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans - whoever believeth in Allah, and the Last Day and doeth right - surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. (2:62)
Thou wilt find the most vehement of mankind in hostility to those who believe (to be) the Jews and the idolaters. And thou wilt find the nearest of them in affection to those who believe (to be) those who say: Lo! We are Christians. That is because there are among them priests and monks, and because they are not proud. (5:82)
During our college days, two films based on Biblical themes were released in Bombay: Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments. Many Muslims, including veiled women, viewed these films. I wondered why the details about Moses in the Bible far exceeded those found in the Qur'an - even though, I later learned, the film added its own commentary to the Biblical account. Does not the Qur'an contain everything found in the previous Scriptures? Though I continued to feel my religion superior, I had to admit I was a little upset.
When circumstances forced me to discontinue post-graduate medical studies, by God's grace I was appointed as a medical officer to serve in a leprosy project newly established by the government. Just before I left Bombay, a Christian friend gave me a Holy Bible, extracting from me a promise to read it. Meanwhile, I had decided first to read the Qur'an so that I would not stray from the straight path of my own religion. The Qur'an clearly warned that those who reject Islam will not be saved. (2:161,162; 4:47,56)
B. Reading the Qur'an
I obtained a copy of the Qur'an in Arabic, alongside of which was a translation and some commentary in Urdu. During leisure hours I completed one reading, noting in a separate book some strange finds which are presented in part in the following pages. To be frank, I was afraid as I read. It caused me anxiety rather than giving me peace. I longed to read those other heavenly books to which the Qur'an referred. But its threats discouraged me. I feared the curse of God.
However, fear and timidity were not the sole reasons. I knew of no Muslim who read the previous Scriptures, discussed them or even had a copy of them in his home. Jews and Christians, the elders claimed, had corrupted their Scriptures and, therefore, they were abrogated. It was even stated that the Gospel (Injil) was elevated with Jesus when He was lifted up into heaven.
All this, of course, did not square with Christian claims about the textual preservation of their Bible. Even more, the Qur'an never suggested that the previous Scriptures should not be read. Surrounded by prejudice, fear and threat, I floundered. I was not an idolater but a Muslim, who recited the creed of Islam. There were many other believers like me and no one among them was called "a so-called Muslim".
Then and there, l decided to obtain a good English translation of the Qur'an, hoping thereby to strengthen my faith and relieve my anxiety about reading the Bible. At a railway station bookstall I purchased a copy of translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall. While serving under the Nizam of Hyderabad some fifty years ago, Pickthall, an Englishman, became a Muslim and expended much effort in translating the Qur'an into English. Many Muslims in India have appreciated his version. While reading this volume, I especially noted and systematised Qur’anic references to the previous Scriptures.
C. Qur’anic References to the Bible
1. The Qur'an affirms that Allah revealed His word to previous prophets and messengers, some of which was written down in the form of books. The Qur'an testifies to the truth and authenticity of all the previous Scriptures and claims that all these heavenly books are a guidance, blessing and light to all the people of the world. All are to believe in these Scriptures. (2:4,5,91,97,136,285; 3:3,4,84; 4:47, 136,163; 5:44-46,48, 66; 6:93, i 55; 7:145; 10:38; etc.)
2. All these heavenly books were in existence when the Qur'an was revealed. Jews and Christians read them, studied them, taught them, and were exhorted to hold fast to them.
Thus the Qur'an speaks of these two communities as readers of the Scriptures or "the People of the Scripture" (ahlu'l kitab 2:44,113, 121; 3:78, 79; 5:43; 6:92; 7:157; 10:95, etc.), not readers of the false Scriptures or "the People of the False Scripture", as I had been led to believe.
3. The Jews and the Christians are to observe the Torah (Tawrat) and the Gospel (Injil), apart from which they do not have guidance. (5:65-69)
4. The Torah is to judge the Children of Israel. (5:43)
5. The Christians are to judge by the Gospel.
Let the People of the Gospel judge by that which Allah bath revealed therein. Whoso judgeth not by that which Allah bath revealed; such are evil-livers. (5:47)
6. The message of the previous Scriptures has been repeated in the Qur'an. (26:192-197)
7.If Arabs doubt Muhammad's message, they are to appeal to the People of the Scripture. (16:43)
8. If Muhammad himself is in doubt. he too should ask the readers of the previous Scriptures. (10:95; cf . 6:115 )
9. Nevertheless, a few adverse remarks concerning the People of the Scripture and their use of previous Scriptures are also found in the Qur'an, for which the People of the Scripture are held responsible. (2:40-42, 75-79, 101, 140, 146, 159, 174; 3:70-72, 78, 187; 4:46; 7:162;etc.) From these verses it appears that the People of the Scripture had made changes (tahrif) in their holy books: They had deleted (takhrij) portions from the text, or they had concealed or forgotten them, or they had mingled the truth with falsehood. Actually, the harsher charges are directed especially against the Jews.
How was I to reconcile those negative Qur’anic statements about the previous Scriptures with its positive statements, which upheld the integrity and presence of these Scriptures with the possessors of these Scriptures? Did the People of the Scripture read, study and teach corrupted Scriptures? If so, why does the Qur'an exhort them to judge according to these Scriptures?
Two conclusions seemed possible, but only one of them probable: 1. The Qur'an contradicted itself - the improbable solution. 2. The corruption of the text referred to the abuse or misuse of the text, a concealing of part of it, adding to it, mistranslating or misinterpreting it, in all cases the text itself remaining intact. Since the idea that all Jews and Christians everywhere would want or would be able to unite not only in changing their Scriptures but in agreeing on what should be changed was patently absurd and virtually impossible, I concluded that the Qur'an levelled these charges of changing / concealing / tongue-twisting against local Jews and Christians only, and that even the Scriptures of the local Jews and Christians must have remained pure for them to read, study and judge by. In addition, I discovered no Qur’anic evidence to support the claims of some Muslims that the Qur'an abrogated the Bible or that the Injil was taken into heaven with Jesus.
Do some Muslims, whose reverence for the Qur'an is unquestionable, on occasions consciously or unconsciously misuse the Qur’anic evidence about the present worth of the previous Scriptures for purposes of their own convenience? Do they thereby misinterpret the Qur'an, conceal parts of it, add to it or twist it? Eventually, through further study, I was amazed to discover the wealth of historical and archaeological evidence in support of the preservation and integrity of the Bible. Knowledgeable Christians, Jews and others may dispute the meaning of Biblical texts or they may dislike or ignore its basic doctrines. But they do not dispute that these basic doctrines are and always have been in the Bible from its beginning.
D. Reading the Bible
It was only after I found so much Qur’anic evidence upholding the existence, truth and the authenticity of the previous Scriptures that I resumed reading the Bible. Still, to pacify my fear of disobeying God, I read once more the opening verses of the second chapter of the Qur'an.
My Christian friends had told me that the Holy Bible is in two parts: 1. "The Old Testament", containing thirty-nine books which were revealed prior to the coming of Jesus; 2."The New Testament", containing twenty-seven books including the Gospel accounts about Jesus and subsequent apostolic testimony about the life of the early Church.
A serious reading of the Bible requires months, especially for one whose normal responsibilities allow only a limited time for such study. My first reading profoundly affected me. At the same time, the difference between the Qur’anic and Biblical accounts puzzled me.
E. Variations between the Biblical and Qur’anic Accounts
Even a superficial reading of the Qur'an and the Bible reveals the similarities and the variations between these two Scriptures. The similarities should surprise no one, especially the Muslim reader accustomed to believe that both Scriptures are the Word of God.
But the variations? Could it be that God simply willed to omit from previous Scriptures many of those signs, which surrounded the previous prophets until He revealed them within the Qur'an, the culmination of all Scripture?
Some. of the variations seemed innocent enough. But all of them? At the command of God the angels prostrated before Adam but Iblis refused (15: 30,31; 20:116). Why did the Bible omit this? Why did the Bible in its lengthy account of Abraham not mention Abraham's residence in Mecca and the construction of the Ka'ba (2:125)? Why did the Bible make no reference to the women who slashed their hands on seeing Joseph (12:31), or to Solomon's understanding of the speech of ants and a hoopoe (27:16ff.)? Why did the Bible, never "soft" in its judgement on human behaviour, omit God's curse upon those people that turned them into apes and swine (5:60)? Does it matter that according to the Bible the whole family of Noah was saved, while according to the Qur'an one of Noah's sons was drowned in the deluge (11:42 ff.)? Biblically, Aaron orders the construction of the idol; Qur’anically, it is al-Samiri (20:85). Does the same person really have these two names? Or why should the Biblical name be changed after existing in this form for centuries? Does the Qur’anic reference to Mary, mother of Jesus, as the sister of Aaron (19:28) further complicate matters? Dare one consider that the name al-Samiri may have reference to the "Samaritans", a traditional enemy of the Jews before and at the time of Jesus?
Do the variations regarding the circumstances and the place of Jesus' birth matter (19:22-ff)? That, Qur’anically, He does signs as a child (19:30; 3:49) but that, Biblically, the first sign, when He was about 30 years old, took place in Cana of Galilee? That, Qur’anically, though the intention to crucify Him was evident, He was not crucified (4:157), while the Injil is saturated with references to the fact as well as to the significance of His crucifixion, His burial and His resurrection from the dead?
Does it matter that the Qur'an denies a type of "sonship" of Jesus which the Bible also denies (112; 6:102), but never addresses itself to the Biblical understanding of Jesus as the Son of God? Does it matter that any reader of the Qur'an might logically infer from the Qur'an that Christians believe in three gods (4:171; 5:73,116) and that, thereby, he may misrepresent the conception of God's unity which the Bible and ancient Christian creeds portray?
F. Does the Qur'an Contain All Necessary Knowledge?
Moreover, what about the claim of many Muslim that the Qur'an contains everything that is necessary to know within the previous Scriptures? Does this claim accord with the frank Qur’anic admission that the Qur'an omits mention of some prophets? Are the Biblical accounts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah and other prophets, whose names are unknown to the Qur'an, simply to be dismissed as irrelevant today? How does one honour them by ignoring them? Do they have nothing to teach us today whether theologically, historically or politically? If minimal information is all that is necessary, why does the Qur'an constantly repeat many of its teachings and events?
And what about Jesus the Messiah (Christ) and those fuller accounts in the Bible about His teaching about God and our neighbour, His parables about the Kingdom of God, His manifold signs, His intimate friendship and conversation with His disciples? Where in the Qur'an is the Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Parable of the Prodigal Son or their likeness? Are they to be dismissed without even being heard, and with them those profound and enlightening discourses on the meaning of humility and love for the believer who truly responds to God's love and righteousness?
If I speak in the tongue of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails....
And now these three remain : faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-8,13)
Is this lyric of love truly abrogated? Have more magnificent verses in the original Injil than these been taken into heaven? Were all Christians so hypocritical that while they engaged themselves in wholesale corruption of the Injil of Jesus, they sang this song of God's love through Jesus that His Spirit now kindled within their hearts? Where in the Qur'an is the likeness of such love, signs like its signs, a content like its content--let alone a consideration of the form and style in which these Biblical signs are presented?
G. Qur’anic Claims
Any Muslim who carefully studies the Qur'an soon confronts its sharp and distinctive claims. It is the Word of God and, "there is no changing the Words of Allah" (10:65). Through it Muhammad is "to bring forth mankind from darkness to light" (14:1). It contains no falsehood, crookedness and incongruity (41:42; 39:28; 4:82). Mankind and jinn, all banded together could not match its inimitableness (17:88). It “brings unto the believers who do good works the news that theirs will be a fair reward" (18:2). The Traditions confirm its truth and authenticity. Indeed, these are no idle claims!
But does the history of the Qur'an, its nature and actual content confirm the claims, which the Qur'an makes for itself? For the moment we mention only some difficulties one encounters beyond those already noted: its lack of historical detail regarding the circumstances of many of its revelations; the chronological sequence of its revelations; some possible historical anachronisms; at times an apparent fracturing of thought sequence within its accounts.
Moreover, do the Traditions themselves regarding the collection of the Qur'an at the time of Uthman, the second caliph, confirm the normal Muslim assurance that the present Qur'an is the exact reproduction of the Qur'an revealed to Muhammad? Does one who is seriously intent on understanding the history of the Qur’anic text simply dismiss those Qur’anic recessions which the Traditions report Uthman to have destroyed, and the reasons for their existence and destruction, at that time? Does one simply ignore the ancient variant readings of the Qur’an, which have persisted in reputable Muslim writings even after those Qur’anic texts were destroyed? If the human memory could retain the readings of the Qur'an of Uthman, could the human memory retain variant readings of others also, especially the variant readings of those companions of Muhammad who insisted that their readings were the true readings? I was aware that such pertinent questions often produce more emotional heat than rational light. But can they not, should they not be dispassionately considered, if only because many Muslims themselves invite such questions when they insist on the perfect preservation of the Qur'an from the time of Muhammad to the present?
More perplexing was the problem of abrogation. That many Muslims, especially contemporary Muslims, have felt the need to reinterpret the classical Muslim doctrine of abrogation is an indication that it is a problem. They have insisted that the Qur'an, as abrogator, abrogates the revelations of previous prophets, despite the evidence from the Qur'an itself and from classical Muslim commentaries that the Qur'an is both abrogator and abrogated.
make thee read (O Muhammad) so that thou shalt not forget.
Save that which Allah willeth. Lo! He knowest the disclosed and that which still is hidden. (87:6,7)
Such of Our revelations as We (God) abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring (in place) one better or the like thereof. Knowest thou not that Allah is able to do all things? (2:106)
And when We put a revelation in place of (another) revelation, - and Allah knoweth best what He revealeth - they say: Lo! thou art but inventing. Most of them know not. (16:101)
It is to the credit of the Qur'an and its early commentators that this difficulty is recognised. Perhaps for them it was no difficulty! Yet, like other Muslims, I wondered how the unchangeable Word of God could be changed, more so since the Qur'an itself lacked clarity about the abrogating and abrogated verses. Nevertheless, Muslim scholars have collected lists of abrogating and abrogated verses from the Qur'an.
I. The Spread of Islam: the Method?
The difficulty of abrogation is accentuated by a variety of Qur’anic references regarding religious toleration, the use of the sword and different Muslim interpretations regarding these references. What does the Qur'an mean when it states "there is no compulsion in religion" (2:256; cf. 10:100)?
This stance need not be contradicted by the Qur’anic insistence that Islam is the sole religion acceptable to God and that eternal punishment awaits those who reject Islam (3:85; 2:161,162). But what about the campaigns conducted against the caravans of Mecca, the expulsion of the Jews from Madina, the many references to jihad (holy war)? Are these the better ways to "repel evil with that which is better" (23:96)? How is one to reconcile these ways with the Qur’anic injunction, "to bear with them and pardon them. Lo! Allah loveth the kindly"- despite the treachery of others (5:13)? Is the classical Islamic understanding of jihad as Islamic intent to gain world sovereignty (apart from the conversion of non-Muslims, or at least the conversion of the People of the Scripture) alien to the Qur'an itself, as are the Crusades alien to the Holy Injil? Does it, as many modern Muslims insist, encountenance fighting only in defense? How is one to understand the significance of the following verses in the present world?
when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them,
and take, them (captive), and besiege them and prepare for them each ambush.
But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their
way free, Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
Fight against such of those who have been given the Scripture as believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, and forbid not that which Allah hath forbidden by his messenger, and follow not the religion of truth, until they pay the tribute readily, being brought low.
And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse are they! (9:5.,29,30)
Does abrogation resolve the conflict between all these and other relevant references? If so, which verses abrogate and which verses are abrogated? As already noted, the older commentators provided their lists of abrogating and abrogated verses. But if their lists are wrong because there is no conflict and no Qur’anic abrogation of the Qur'an, is there a general Muslim consensus to this effect?
These and similar verses stunned me. How could these verses be recorded on the Guarded Tablet even before the creation of the world! In any case, on the basis of these verses the swift and extensive expansion of Islamic sovereignty followed logically.
J. An Alternative Way
But dare one query such Qur’anic claims? Dare one even consider whether or not the premises of Islamic faith are valid premises, especially the premise that the Qur'an is the perfect source of faith for all humanity and for all time? At least the verses in support of the sword contrasted starkly with the words of the Holy Injil:
A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34,35)
If You love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even, 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners', expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most high, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: " It is mine to avenge; I will repay." says the Lord. On the contrary:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
Do Muslims believe that such passages are really of no value now, even abrogated? Have they really read them before they have dismissed them?
K. My Dilemma
Cherished beliefs and customs die hard, even though one's own life does not conform with them. When one feels threatened, they die even harder. But were the authors of the above quoted passages from the Injil that threatened my traditional beliefs, my enemies?
By now I had serious reservations about the claims of the Qur'an. While I certainly could not identify with all the Meccan objections to the Qur'an and to Muhammad so frankly recorded in the Qur'an, neither could I identify with the Qur’anic responses to these objections. Its conflicts with the Bible, its claims to contain all that is in the Bible, the manner of its collection and final formation, the problem of abrogation, the sanction and permission of jihad and the accompanying spirit of militancy this has engendered within the Muslim community: All these and other matters combined to shake .my faith in the Qur’anic claims for itself and for Muhammad.
Nor did the Traditions help. It. is true that Islam has always drawn from the Traditions as the primary source of Qur’anic commentary, and, indeed, this makes historical sense. Yet I had heard and read enough about them to understand how many persons even within the Muslim community questioned their validity. For me, at least, they only accentuated the doubts about the Qur’an, which I already had. It seemed strange that the Traditions were considered indispensable for a wider and deeper understanding of the Qur'an - given the claims within the Qur'an about the uniqueness and self-sufficiency of the Qur'an.
But, as the sequence shows, there was still another major problem, in fact, the problem. It is the problem that has always cut through the totality of mankind wherever people perceive God to be holy and His commandments to be righteous:
If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins,
O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3)
That is how the Psalmist recognises everyone’s plight – I being no exception to it. A renowned Urdu poet, Amir Minai has wonderfully echoed the same truth in these words:
“Shauq se likhkhen farishte mere isyan raat din
Ek rehmat uski hai is sare daftar ka jawab.”
“However fervently angels record my sins, day and night,
God’s grace alone suffices to erase the whole account.”
Is not God's grace the sole antidote for our sin?