Christian scriptures contain two versions of Jesus’s parable of the Great Banquet. Matthew‘s version is a lot more elaborate and hyperbolic, while Luke‘s is simpler and more generalized. I prefer the simplicity of Luke’s version. In it, a man prepares a great feast and invites many people. Those who he invites decline one by one, and so the host redirects his invitation to the social rejects and foreigners, aiming to leave not one seat unfilled. Matthew’s version spreads the analogy thinner by adding grander details, going out of its way to include a condemnation of Israelite history, and putting caveats on those accepted at the table. This parable was clearly in my mind as I read Surah al-Ma’idah, or “The Feast.” The resemblance is not something the surah explicitly words in itself, but the title and some of the content suggested it to me, particularly of Matthew’s version. Al-Ma’idah takes time to set up an image of the literal and metaphorical feast of Islam, denounce those who failed to come or refused to listen, and set expectations and rules for those who do come.
Last week I wrote about the parts of the surah targeted towards Muslims: the foods they are welcome to, some of the guidelines for how they are to handle justice in their society, and their responsibility to only convey the existence and message of the Quran. This week I’m going to focus on the messages within Surah al-Ma’idah concerning Jews and Christians about their failure to respond to God’s invitations.
They Will be the (Sore) Losers
Like the invitations sent out and rejected, God recounts how He took covenants with first the Jews and then the Christians only to have those covenants broken. It is worth noting that the Jews and Christians are portrayed as breaking their covenants in different ways. For the Jews, the emphasis is on their disobedience. Their listed covenant obligations are worded in the same way as Islam’s: establish prayer, give prescribed zakat (“purifiers,” generally translated as charitable acts or fiscal tithe that purify one’s soul), support God’s messengers, and give God a good loan (i.e. invest acts of this life for rewards in the hereafter). The surah says that the Jews broke their pledge, and so God hardened their hearts and became distant. Although the Jews are said to have distorted their given message and forgotten portions of it, their disobedience is still at the forefront because they forgot things that they were commanded not to forget. This combination of fickleness and forsakenness, the surah warns, has rendered most Jews inherently treacherous, although it also tells Muhammad to overlook this and offer pardon. The Christian covenant comes next, but neither their covenant nor their path to forgetting it is spelled out. In later ayat emphasis will be placed on their theological failings rather than their moral character. The consequences that God prescribes is that Christians will be divided and hateful of each other until the Judgement.
Jewish rebellion and treachery is illustrated in this surah through both historical and contemporary examples. The historical example (entry into the Holy Land) I’ll deal with later. The contemporary examples seem to be centered around intellectual disputes between Muhammad and rabbis. After the section of guidance about court punishments and such, God warns of hypocrites and Jews who cultivate lies and rumors about Muhammad. A section of ayah 41 doesn’t translate too well: “[The Jews] say: ‘If you are given this, take it; but if you are not given it, then beware.'” That is Sahih International’s translation, but I found the most sense in a translation with tafsir (“interpretative notes”) by Abdul ala Maududi. Maududi explains that Jews were approaching Muhammad with questions they thought they already knew the answers to, and were rejecting Muhammad if he didn’t give the same answers. In other words, the Jews were testing and judging Muhammad by how much he matched their own traditions/scriptures. This method of testing new things by what you already know is a very reasonable and valid way of exploring new ideas. However, this method reverses the order proposed in ayat 15 and 48 in which the Quran is to be used to judge what truth is left in the Torah and Gospel, since those two sources are understood to be corrupted by their holders. We’ll return to this scene later to explore some interesting statements about the Torah and Gospel.
God declares that He has willed these Jews and hypocrites into sedition, therefore no one can do anything for their souls. Further references to Jewish sedition appears in ayah 64, where it is recalled that the Jews tried to bring war upon the Muslims (suggesting that this is a later ayah, given historical events), and they are described as people who strive to corrupt the land. The surah does not attribute this seditious inclination to Christians. While Jews are likened in animosity to the polytheists, Christians are complimented as being more openhearted to Islam. This is in ayat 82-85, where the compliment is particularly extended to ascetic monks. It says that when they hear the Quran they start crying with joy and believe it is true. Perhaps the image of the crying and confessing Christians in this surah was inspired by Muhammad’s early experience with Khadija’s cousin, Waraqah, who many think was a Nestorian Christian scholar. Waraqah didn’t live long enough to see Islam formed, but he had heard Muhammad’s first revelation and proclaimed it prophetic. At any rate, if Muhammad had been alive at later times when Christian and Muslim communities clashed, including our modern times, I wonder if this surah would have reckoned Christians to be so openhearted.
Honestly, when I prepared myself to read the Quran, I had no idea that I would find so much bile about the People of the Book. I suppose it’s all part of being a religion that views itself as a continuation of other religions, yet needs to excuse itself from their authority. Christian scriptures are not entirely exempt from this, but they also have the benefit of being mostly written by Jewish authors. In the Quran, I’d say that Jews have the toughest time because they have a more unified identity. While there are only a few core tenets and practices in Christianity for Islam to condemn, Judaism comes with anthologies of traditions, history, culture, heroes, and laws for the Quran to loosely draw its criticism from. The Christian community is much harder to pin down as a whole, and I regretfully agree with the surah’s observation that we despise each other. Our nebulous identity is great for allowing us to adapt into other cultures, but weaker for internal solidarity. If you try and level criticisms of the Christian community to an individual Christian you are very likely to get an answer along the lines of, “well, those Christians did/think that, but real Christians…” Muhammad also seems to have had little confrontation with Christians in his time, giving the surah less material or reason to attack Christianity except for its most obvious theological tenets.
I once heard that Muslims think the trinity is God the Father, Jesus the Son, and Mary the Mother. When I looked up whether this was a real thing, I found that there is plenty of evidence that Muslims scholars are well aware of authentic trinity theology (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and that even marginal notes in old copies of the Quran explain the normative Christian opinion. I can see why people might develop this misconception of Muslim persective from a reading of the Quran alone. The words ar-rooH al-qudus (“The Holy Spirit”) have only appeared a few times, always in relation to Jesus’s ministry. My searches on the internet about the subject find that general Muslim opinion is that “Holy Spirit” is another name for the Angel Gabriel. However, passages of the Quran have not been concerned with Christians worshiping the Holy Spirit as divine, but rather spend much more time revoking a belief that Mary was divine. One passage here refers to Christians taking both Jesus and Mary as gods, which could further lead Muslims to understand that the “three” of the Christian trinity are Father, Son, Mother. As I said, special reverence of Mary started early in church history, and I’m not surprised that Muhammad would not be able to tell the difference between veneration and worship (many Christians would even agree with him). That it perceives in Mary’s veneration a slip into worship and deification of Mary doesn’t mean that the Quran necessarily thinks Mary is one of the trinity, even though we don’t see the Quran represent the orthodox position. [Update: A few hundred years before Muhammad’s time is minute evidence that there might have been a heretical group of Arabian Christians who worshiped Mary as goddess, and so Muhammad could be referring to a memory of that ancient group.]
(Linguistic trivia: the Arabic roots for “spirit” are r-oo-H, and can also mean breath or energy. The word communicates forces that are felt but not seen. These are the same roots used in the Hebrew language for the same meanings.)
The Quran takes a unique approach to refuting the Godhood of Jesus in this surah. It foretells of the future day of judgment when God will interview all the prophets and ask them to tell of their ministries. God spends a long time telling Jesus how much He blessed his ministry (including a scene in which, in response to demands of the apostles, God sends down a table of food in order to validate Jesus’s truthfulness) and directly asks, “O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, ‘Take me and my mother as deities besides THE GOD?'” Jesus renounces this, calling God to be his witness, and says he only taught the people to worship God. Jesus says he can only vouch for his disciples’ beliefs and behavior while he was with them on earth, and God must judge those that came after. To be clear, the Quran is featuring Jesus testifying to the guilt of his followers. This message is the closing scene of the surah, widening from the interview with Jesus to a broader statement about the rewards for truthfulness and God’s dominion over everything.
The Quran also takes a not-so-unique approach to refuting the Godhood of Jesus in this surah by pointing out Jesus’s mortality: both Jesus and Mary ate food, thus they were mortals. This is not a new argument, and in fact the Greek philosopher Porphyry posed this same argument in the third century, going further to detail the filthy nature of the birthing process in order to impress the humility of mortality. The Quran doesn’t persist much along those lines, but instead argues that since God could have personally killed Jesus without problem–in much the same manner that He can destroy all things–then God and Jesus could not be the same beings. Jesus’s humanity is something that Christianity both embraces and struggles with. We will always question how can an infinite God be represented by a human being, and how much like God was Jesus. The four canonized accounts of Jesus’s life demonstrate that he was very mortal and did not have unlimited knowledge (at least, not before his resurrection), but also demonstrate that he accepted/encouraged worshipful acts from others and positioned himself in roles occupied in the prophetic literature by God. Trying to figure out how God and human combined led to several church splits, including the Nestorian Schism (and Nestorians for some centuries would thrive under the political refuge Islamic communities offered them from the Roman-Orthodox authorities). So the mortality of Jesus is a pretty good fight for the Quran to pick.
All but a Few of Them
Most of the condemnations against Christians and Jews in this surah are in the same vein that we have read before. By this time it would seem obvious that Islam has outright condemning views of Christianity and Judaism, since their failures are attributed so broadly and deeply, but Islam’s actual stance is still more complicated and nuanced than that. If these chapters were only to insist that Christianity and Judaism utterly failed as holy religions from their earliest phases, the Quran would fall in danger of implying that all God’s work was futile. (Last surah, the general uselessness of miraculous proofs was stated in order to defend Muhammad’s lack of them, and this also gives a sense of divine futility.) It is significant therefore that after declarations of the en masse failures of the People of the Book, there usually follows this little caveat: “all but a few of them.” These few are described as those who believe in only one God, pray regularly, give zakat, and believe there will be a final judgment, and they are promised to be free of suffering.
The few obedient members of the People of the Book have yet to appear as specific persons in any stories, except maybe as the few-within-the-few Jews who trusted God on their way to fight Goliath and maybe the Twelve Disciples who kept with Jesus even when his ministry was languishing. This surah contains a retelling (ayat 20-26) of the Israelites’ first approach to the Holy Land (Jewish version here), and there seem to be no obedient Jews beyond the prophets Moses and Aaron. There is an ayah within the story where “two men” encourage the Israelites to obey God and enter the Holy Land. Translations differ as to whether those two men spoke out as representatives of a community that feared God, or whether they spoke as God-fearing men who contrasted their community. At any rate, the people aim their response towards Moses, and Moses laments to God that he only has allegiance from himself and his brother. Moses doesn’t mention any faithful few, and if the story is to be consistent with itself then Moses and Aaron would seem to be the two men of earlier (although I agree that would be a weird way to tell the story). At any rate, it is hard for me to buy into the existence of a constant presence of a faithful minority from just textual examples. The Quran’s portrayal of Jews comes off as extremely harsh because it has so far offered no counterbalancing samples of non-prophetic, righteous Jews. I think Islam is relying on the personal experience of individual Muslims to fill in examples of pious Christians or Jews. We shall see if more positive representations appear as we continue reading the Quran.
The understood continual presence of a faithful minority implies another dimension to the way normative People of the Book are perceived. If there is enough truth for a small population to be guided away from the major sins and towards God’s mercy, then that means that normative Jews and Christians cannot justify their sins by claiming ignorance. Ayah 66 says that if they truly lived by the Torah and Gospel, God would have rewarded them. Thus, those who claim a belief that they do not follow can be categorized as hypocrites. That normative People of the Book are categorized as hypocrites can be seen in ayat 18 and 51. In 18, Jews and Christians claim that they are children of God, and the surah rebukes them with “Then why does He punish you for your sins?” (Although from the next sentence, it could be that the ayah is just objecting to the term “children of God” because it thinks they are using such a term to claim being more than human.) More suggestively, in ayah 51, believers are told not to take People of the Book as political allies or else they will become one of them. This sort of contagion by association reminds me of how hypocrites are understood to affect true believers in An-Nisa. Accepting a Jewish or Christian governor or ally doesn’t make one a Jew or Christian, but if it leads to excusing their flaws, adopting some of their mindset, or acting upon their orders, it could render a believer a hypocrite.
Inclusivism and/or Pluralism
Affirming the salvation of the few has led to some ambiguity as to whether Islam is inclusivistic, accepting that certain believers from other religions are equally rewarded by God. Repeating a message already seen, ayah 69 states that believers and those who became Jews, Sabeans, and Christians and who believe in God, righteousness, and Judgement will not grieve [in the afterlife]. These minimal terms of redemption seem to outline something close to Judaism’s Noahide Laws (through which non-Jews can gain good standing with God). An-Nisa 31 also said whoever avoided the major sins would have their minor ones forgiven and be granted a place in Paradise. This concept of major sins is the crux of whether Islam is inclusive towards other religions. What counts as a major sin? Attributing false qualities or companions to God is called the worst sin. That means Christianity is already out (even non-mainstream groups usually describe Jesus as God’s literal son), along with a hearty majority of other religions. Rejecting the Quran and Muhammad has also been condemned very severely in the past; if it is a major sin, then only Islam is left standing. In fact, if accepting all prophets is mandatory, then Jews would be perceived as religiously invalid since the time of Jesus. Also, do we know if there’s a penalty for believing in additional prophets? Babism, Baha’i, and Ahmadi are Muslim spin-offs that prescribe prayer and charity, and also respect Muhammad as a prophet and the Quran as divine revelation, but see their beliefs as the next continuation. I have found forums debating whether Zoroaster was a God-sent prophet as well. What sins are classified as major will determine how inclusive Islam is. I expect we will see these kinds of lines drawn more as we progress through the Quran.
Whether or not Islam is inclusive of other religions, it has to be acknowledged that Islam embraces pluralism, the coexistence of multiple religions. Here is where this surah’s commentary on the Torah and Gospel comes to light. Muhammad is told that he’s not obligated to officiate over the court cases of the quarrelsome Jews if he doesn’t want to. God questions why the Jews should even need to come before Muhammad, since they have the Torah. It upholds that laws in the Torah such as “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth…” are still valid guidance from God. The same is said for the Gospel, and Muhammad is told to leave the Christians to live by the Gospel. These passages culminate in ayah 48, when God tells Muhammad that while the Quran is the lens through which to evaluate the remaining truth in Jewish and Christian scriptures, each community was given its law and method by God. Because Islam believes that Judaism and Christianity were originally from God and have some valid, if incomplete, heart within them, they come under a special level of tolerance in which they are seen as functional and permitted within a Muslim society (though as I’ve questioned in Christianity’s case, how?). The surah indirectly predicts that Judaism and Christianity will always be around, since God declares in ayat 14 and 64 that He has sown/stirred up “enmity and hatred among them until the Day of Resurrection.” It also explains that God could have unified Muslims and People of the Book all into one community, but did not do so in order to test Muslims. God encourages Muslims (and maybe all the communities) to race towards good, and says that He will answer their dividing questions on the Last Day. Just like Muhammad has been commanded to overlook and forgive the perceived treachery in Jews, the Muslim community is always encouraged to act with justice and even kindness to the People of the Book.
In past suwar, marriages and alliances were talked about the same way. Muslims are not to take polytheists as political allies (except in precaution against them) nor to intermarry with polytheists. In this surah, Muslims are not allowed to take People of the Book as political allies, but they are allowed to marry their women. The ayah specifically says “women,” and tradition does not favor gender swapping this verse to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslim men. Perhaps I am making too much of a parallel between political alliances and marriages, but it is a pretty common link found in many (dare I say most?) cultures. So I speculate why Muslims would be forbidden from making alliances with Jews or Christians for fear of becoming one of them, but would be allowed to marry their women? Perhaps alliances infer too much equality between the groups, and inferring equality threatens Islam’s claims to supersede the other faiths. The treaty between Muhammad and the Najrani Christians was not one of equality, but one in which the Najranis accepted a Muslim governor. As to allowing only Muslim men to marry Jewish or Christian women, in prior chapters it has been taught that part of a husband’s responsibility is to oversee his wives’ responsibilities. Perhaps it is because the man remains in the overruling position that such interfaith marriages are allowed. I want to be clear that I don’t believe the intent is to abuse, hurt, or oppress the People of the Book. It is spelled out that men are to approach Jewish/Christian women with the exact same intentions and treat them with the exact same privileges as Muslim women. I think instead the idea is that Islam sees itself as superseding the religious authority of those two religions, and as such it requires its own social structures to position the Muslim in authority to supersede the non-Muslim so that Muslims will not find their obligations in conflict.
What Muslims are to Learn
So what are Muslims supposed to take away from this scathing scrutiny of the People of the Book? The Quran hasn’t decreed a PSA value yet, but I can see some takeaways. As I said earlier, the Jews and the Christians are seen as having lost their redemption through different ways. In the case of the Jews, they had the truth and chose to both disobey it and alter it more to their liking. In the case of the Christians, they had the truth but then fell into chaos upon starting to worship the prophet that brought them that truth, sort of losing the truth as they did so. These perceived faults might’ve been on the mind of Muhammad as he was building the religious community around him. By describing the failed society of the Jews, the Quran is emphasizing to the new community the cost of disobedience. By denouncing the strange and estranging theology of the Christians, the Quran is also emphasizing to the new community to keep their beliefs simple and unified. Considering how centralized authority is on Muhammad in the new community, there might also have been some concern that Muslims would follow the path of Christians and start worshiping their prophet. To the Muslims, God also warns in ayah 54: no one is irreplaceable, God doesn’t need a particular person’s obedience, and if one person turns away God will just replace them with someone else. Having the example of the supplanted Jews and Christians before them, it is driven home to Muslims that God is not beneath replacing them if they too grow flawed. Although not immune from community splits, legal ambiguities, and in-group arguments, the Muslim community has internalized these lessons and claims them as their source of strength.