Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Blogging Blogging the Qur'an: the Fatiha, Qur'an 1:6-7

Robert Spencer

I have been promising for awhile to comment when time permits on the doppelganger to my Blogging the Qur'an series, Ziauddin Sardar's Blogging the Qur'an series at The Guardian. Of course, time will never permit, but here are a few preliminary observations:

Why the lockdown on comments? Ironically enough for a "Comment Is Free" feature, comments on Sardar's work are not free. While I read the comments fields on my Blogging the Qur'an feature at Hot Air and answer every question, friendly or hostile, interested readers have to submit their questions to Sardar, and he only takes up the ones he wants to answer. If some angry commenter showed up and claimed that I was misrepresenting a passage of the Qur'an, I would deal directly with the objection. But not Sardar, unless he chose to do so. This gives the whole enterprise a sanitized, Potemkin-village aspect. Also, Sardar rarely cites Islamic authorities as he explains the various Qur'anic passages he treats. In contrast, as a rule I don't offer my own judgments on the meaning of the Qur'an, but rather cite mainstream Islamic commentators on the passages, to show how Muslims generally have understood those passages. As a result, readers have no way of knowing the relationship of his interpretations to mainstream Islamic understandings.

So compare our two treatments of the last two verses of the Fatiha, the Qur'an's first sura and the most important prayer in Islam. First, Sardar:

The Qur'an is full of metaphors and allusions to travel and movement. Sharia, the term used for Islamic law, derives from a word signifying "the way to a watering hole". In the desert, water holes must be found among shifting sands and changing and often hazardous weather conditions. And to survive one has to keep on finding water holes along the route.

So, for me, the "straight path" is a navigational tool, a set of criteria to assess where we actually are and where we ought to be going in the course of life's journey. It functions like a lighthouse that guides vessels at sea, illuminates hazardous areas, and highlights safe passages. What is 'straight' in the 'straight path' is the manner of travel and not the road you see in front of you.

And so on. In his article on Qur'an 1:6-7, he deals solely with the implications of Islam being the "straight path," and doesn't deal at all with the contrasting paths mentioned in those verses, the path of those who have earned Allah's anger and the path of those who have gone astray. But I suspect that how Muslims understand those verses would be of particular interest to Sardar's readers. Here is my take on the same passage:

The final two verses of the Fatiha asks Allah: “Show us the straight path, the path of those whom Thou hast favoured; not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.” The traditional Islamic understanding of this is that the “straight path” is Islam — cf. Islamic apologist John Esposito’s book Islam: The Straight Path. The path of those who have earned Allah’s anger are the Jews, and those who have gone astray are the Christians.

The classic Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir explains that “the two paths He described here are both misguided,” and that those “two paths are the paths of the Christians and Jews, a fact that the believer should beware of so that he avoids them. The path of the believers is knowledge of the truth and abiding by it. In comparison, the Jews abandoned practicing the religion, while the Christians lost the true knowledge. This is why ‘anger’ descended upon the Jews, while being described as ‘led astray’ is more appropriate of the Christians.”

Ibn Kathir’s understanding of this passage is not a lone “extremist” interpretation. In fact, most Muslim commentators believe that the Jews are those who have earned Allah’s wrath and the Christians are those who have gone astray. This is the view of Tabari, Zamakhshari, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, the Tanwir al-Miqbas min Tafsir Ibn Abbas, and Ibn Arabi, as well as Ibn Kathir. One contrasting, but not majority view, is that of Nisaburi, who says that “those who have incurred Allah’s wrath are the people of negligence, and those who have gone astray are the people of immoderation.”

Wahhabis drew criticism a few years back for adding “such as the Jews” and “such as the Christians” into parenthetical glosses on this passage in Qur’ans printed in Saudi Arabia. Some Western commentators imagined that the Saudis originated this interpretation, and indeed the whole idea of Qur’anic hostility toward Jews and Christians. Muslims all over the world learn as a matter of course that the central prayer of their faith anathematizes Jews and Christians.

But unfortunately, this interpretation is venerable and mainstream in Islamic theology. The printing of the interpretation in parenthetical glosses into a translation would be unlikely to affect Muslim attitudes, since the Arabic text is always and everywhere normative in any case, and since so many mainstream commentaries contain the idea that the Jews and Christians are being criticized here. Seventeen times a day, by the pious.

Please note that I am not saying that the anti-Jewish and anti-Christian interpretation of the Fatiha is the “correct” one. While I don’t believe that religious texts are infinitely malleable and can be made to mean whatever the reader wants them to mean, as some apparently do, in this case Nisaburi’s reading has as much to commend it as the other: there is nothing in the text itself that absolutely compels one to believe that it is talking about Jews and Christians. And it is noteworthy that in his massive and evocatively named 30-volume commentary on the Qur’an, Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (In the Shade of the Qur’an), the twentieth-century jihad theorist Sayyid Qutb doesn’t mention Jews or Christians in connection with this passage. At the same time, however, the idea in Islam that Jews have earned Allah’s anger and Christians have gone astray doesn’t depend on this passage alone. The Jews have earned Allah’s anger by rejecting Muhammad (2:87-90), and the Christians have gone astray by holding to the divinity of Christ (5:72).

The Hadith, the traditions of the words and deeds of Muhammad and the early Muslims, also contains material linking Jews to Allah’s anger and Christians to his curse, which resulting from their straying from the true path. (The Jews are accursed also, according to Qur’an 2:89, and both are accursed according to 9:30). One hadith recounts that an early Muslim, Zaid bin ‘Amr bin Nufail, in his travels met with Jewish and Christian scholars. The Jewish scholar told him, “You will not embrace our religion unless you receive your share of Allah’s Anger,” and the Christian said, “You will not embrace our religion unless you get a share of Allah’s Curse.” Zaid, needless to say, became a Muslim.

In light of these and similar passages it shouldn’t be surprising that many Muslim commentators have understood the Fatiha to be encapsulating these views.

Sardar offers platitudes and generalities, and never even discusses the idea that Jews and Christians are referred to in this passage, even to refute it. In contrast, I cite numerous Islamic authorities on both sides of the issue of whether or not Jews and Christians are referred to here. I leave it to you to determine which one of us is telling you more about the traditional and mainstream Islamic views on this crucial passage.

“Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to make of it.” [Daniel Pipes]

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