Dec 312005
 
Should Muslims have knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures? This important question was the subject of a recent poll on this website. The voter was asked to choose whether “for the Muslim, knowledge of Jewish and Christian scriptures is”: “Necessary,” “Useful,” “Useless,” or “Bad,” or that he “did not know”. In total, 394 people cast their votes, and the results were as follows:

 

Option
Number of Votes
Percentage of Votes
Necessary
173
43.9%
Useful
170
43.1%
Useless
32
8.1%
Bad
9
2.3%
I do no know
10
2.5%

 

Diagram of the results

 

A clear majority of 87% has voted in favor of the Muslim learning about Jewish and Christian scriptures. A minority of around 10.5% disapproved of that and thought that this knowledge is either useless or bad for the Muslim. Only a very small minority could not make their minds up.

I have no doubt that the Muslim “must” learn about Jewish and Christian scriptures. In fact, while Judaism and Christianity and their literature are the closest to Islam and its literature, other religions and their scriptures should also be studied by the Muslim. There are a number of reasons as to why I agree with the 44% of the voters who reckoned that knowledge of non-Islamic scriptures is “necessary” for the Muslim.

1) Many of the holy figures in Judaism, such as Abraham and Moses, and the main figure of Christianity, Jesus, are accepted by the Qur’an as prophets and messengers who were sent by the one and only God who later sent Prophet Muhammad. Their message, in essence, is considered as one and the same message that God sent the last Prophet with. At the same time, the Qur’an gives a different account of the teachings of those Biblical figures from what the Bible attributes to them. The Qur’an states that the books that He revealed to the Jews and Christians were tampered with by some of them: 

Do you [O you who believe!] hope that they would believe with you when a party from among them used to hear the Word of Allah and then alter it after they had understood it, knowingly? (2.75).

And among them are illiterates who know not the Book but only imagine it in line with their wishes, and they only guess (2.78). Woe, then, to those who write the book with their hands and then say “This is from Allah” to get a small price for it; therefore woe to them for what their hands have written and woe to them for what they earn (2.79).

And surely there is amongst them a party who distorts the Book with their tongue that you may consider it to be [part] of the Book, when it is not [part] of the Book, and they say: “It is from Allah”, while it is not from Allah, and they tell lies about Allah whilst they know (3.78).

O Messenger! Let not them grieve you, those who vie one with another in the race to disbelief, among those who say with their mouths “We believe,” but their hearts did not believe, and of the Jews who listen to falsehood, listen to other folk who have not come to you [who] alter words from their contexts (from 5.41).

 Now, it is not possible to say that the Jewish and Christian scriptures that have survived are simply heavily edited versions of the Torah of Moses or the Injil of Jesus, but some parts of them may have been originally based on authentic revelation and teachings. Studying these scriptures and the differences between them and the Qur’an would be very useful for learning about the changes that could have been made to the original teachings.

Moreover, the Qur’an actually mentions specific changes that were made by man to the divine revelation and names particular Jewish and Christian beliefs that it rejects. In order to fully understand these changes and beliefs, the Jewish and Christian scriptures have to be studied. For instance, the Qur’an condemns the deification of Jesus, whom the Qur’an considers as a human prophet like any other prophet God sent: 

They have indeed disbelieved those who say: “Allah is the Messiah, son of Mary”. Say [O Muhammad!]: “Who then can do anything against Allah if He had willed to destroy the Messiah, son of Mary, his mother, and everyone on earth? Allah’s is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth and all that is between them. He creates what He wills. Allah is able to do all things (5.17).

 It also denies that Jesus was crucified:

And because of their saying: “We killed the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, Allah’s messenger”. They did not kill or crucify him, but it was made to appear so to them. Those who disagree concerning it are in doubt thereof; they have no knowledge thereof, but a conjecture they follow; they did not kill him for certain (4.157). Allah rather raised him up to Himself. Allah is invincible, wise (4.158).

 The Muslim believes that the Qur’an is the word of God which must be studied extensively. Surely, when the Qur’an highlights specific wrong concepts in other religions then studying those concepts in their original sources is part of studying and understanding the Qur’an itself.

Those who think that Muslims should not learn about the scriptures of other religions are clearly ignorant of a very simple fact: just about every Muslim scholar has studied Jewish and Christian scriptures! They are unaware that the most famous scholars of the exegesis of the Qur’an – such as al-Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir, and At-Tabataba’i – all quote and discuss Jewish and Christian scriptures in their works. These scholars clearly believed that studying these scriptures is essential to understanding certain parts of the Qur’an.

Even the earliest biographer of Prophet Muhammad studied non-Islamic scriptures. Ibn Ishaq (ca. 704 – ca. 769), whose biography of Prophet Muhammad became the basis for the more accessible biography by Ibn Hisham (died 833 CE), has clearly studied at least a version of the Gospel of John. This is a quotation from Ibn Hisham’s biography of Prophet Muhammad: 

Ibn Ishaq said: “Among the things that have reached me of what Jesus son of Mary had stated in the Injil (Gospel) – which was revealed to him by Allah for the people of the Injil – about the signs of the Messenger of Allah, which was set down by John the disciple for the people of the Injil, when he wrote for them the Injil about the covenant of Jesus son of Mary with them regarding the Messenger of Allah that he said: ‘He who hates me, hates the Lord. Had I not performed in front of them works that no one before me had done, they would not have had any sin. But they showed conceit and thought that they would overpower me and the Lord. But the word of the Law has to be fulfilled: ‘they hated me for no reason’, i.e. unjustly. And when the munhamanna who is sent by Allah to you comes, and the holy spirit that is with the Lord comes out, he will testify to me, and so you. Because you had been with me from the beginning. I said to you: ‘so that you do not complain'”.
The munhamanna in Syriac means “Muhammad” (praised one), and in Greek it is “faraklete”.

2) This quotation from Ibn Ishaq reveals a second reason for studying the scriptures of other religions: the possibility that they may contain references to Prophet Muhammad, and thus attest to the verity of his message. This is exactly what Ibn Ishaq has done in the passage above. Professor David Benjamin Keldani (whose revert name is ‘Abdul ‘L-Ahad Dawud) compiled in his book Muhammad in the Bible, which can be downloaded from this website, a list of prophecies about the Prophet in the Old and New Testaments, and Abdul Haq Vidyarthi highlighted prophecies in other scriptures in his book Muhammad in World Scriptures. Whether one agrees or not with these findings is a different issue, but searching for references to Prophet Muhammad in other scriptures is certainly a valid quest and religious research. In fact, there is a Qur’anic verse that states that prophet Muhammad is mentioned in the both the Torah and the Injil:

Those (the believers) who follow the Messenger, the unlettered Prophet, whom they find mentioned in the Torah and the Injil which they have: He will enjoin on them that which is right and forbid them that which is evil; he will make lawful for them all good things and prohibit for them only the foul; and he will relieve them of their burden and the yokes that are upon them. Those who believe in him, honor him, help him, and follow the light which is sent down with him – those are the successful (7.157).

 It was so clear to the Jews and the Christians that Muhammad was the Prophet they were promised and commanded to follow that they could recognize him as they recognize their offspring:

Those to whom We have given the Book recognize him as they recognize their sons, and a party of them conceal the truth which they themselves know (2.146).

 There is no question that looking for any references to the message of Prophet Muhammad in non-Islamic scripture is valid and worthy effort.

3) The scriptures and religion of any people form a major part of their culture and values. In order to understand and communicate with any people, one needs to understand their culture, tradition, and set of values. This is another reason why Muslims need to study other religions. See, for instance, this verse: 

Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in the best manner (from 16.125).

 How can a Muslim have a meaningful and respectful discussions with people about Islam when he does not know what these people believe and how they think?

Whether they would like to introduce their religion to people of other faiths or simply seek to live in harmony with non-Muslims, Muslims need to have a good understanding of those other faiths.

In these times of much misunderstanding of Islam and its followers, Muslims have been asking the West to get rid of its prejudice and try to properly understand Islam. Muslims have the right to ask for this understanding, but they are also under obligation to reciprocate this understanding and try and understand the faiths of others. This is specially necessary for Muslims who live in non-Islamic countries in general and the West in particular, but it is required of Muslims everywhere. The growing power and spread of communication technologies is making this world smaller and its distant parts closer. This increasing communication and contact between very different cultures and traditions must be associated with serious attempts to understand the other and help them understand you, because the alternative is misunderstanding and conflict.

I have already pointed out one major problem with the position of Muslims who object to learning about other religions: ignorance. They are unaware that the scholars of their religion have always shown keen interest in studying other faiths. These people are not ignorant only of other faiths, but they are also ignorant of their own religion. I have highlighted other aspects of this unfortunate ignorance in my article about The Evolving Nature of Qur’anic Exegesis.

But these isolationists have another, equally significant problem – particularly those who think that studying religions other than their own is “bad”. They think it is detrimental because they believe it would negatively affect their faith in their religion. They are apprehensive that their attachment to or confidence in their religion might be weakened by the different and contradictory concepts and dogmas of other religions. The problem here is not really knowledge. Knowledge can never be bad. The real problem is unwillingness to face and deal honestly with lingering doubts and shaken confidence in Islam that this Muslim has. The Muslim who believes that Islam is the true religion should not fear being exposed to other religions. Indeed, he should expect his faith in his religion to increase as a result of such exposure. This, in fact, is a real opportunity to consciously choose Islam, if Islam only happened to be the religion of the family one was born to.

Anyone who is not brave and honest enough to face his doubts would never have real, strong faith. He may succeed in protecting the hypocritical life he has chosen for himself, but that is not the life of a believer. Additionally, he may be able to suppress those doubts, but he is bound to be reminded of them much more often that he likes. What these people have failed to realize is that knowledge is never an enemy, but ignorance is.

Copyright © 2005 Louay Fatoohi
All Rights Reserved

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