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al-Kafirun, take 3: Going in depth with a podcast

October 11, 2010 2 comments

Commenter KT pointed me to a fellow named Nouman Ali Khan who has created a series of podcasts that analyze, in depth, each sura of the Qur'an (OK, I don't know whether he's done all of them, but he's definitely done a few).

I don't know much about Nouman Ali Khan or the Bayinnah Institute, but… wow. As someone who isn't religious and didn't receive a religious upbringing, I can forget that real exegesis–not the superficial stuff I'm doing here–can be as complex and as in depth as US Constitutional law.

Six brief lines, about 25 words. I'm fifteen minutes into Khan's detailed podcast on al-Kafirun, and as he digs into the complexity of translating from Arabic, the rich history of Qur'anic exegetes before him… and this text keeps popping into my head: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." A mere 27 words that has generated hundreds of thousands of words in analysis over the past two hundred years–probably more like millions and tens of millions–all about the narrow matter of gun ownership in the United States.

It's a sobering thought: I've undertaken this project, partly as an intellectual exercise to keep my mind active at an age when my career focuses my mind on a narrow world; partly as a project inspired by a book I enjoyed greatly, A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically; and partly as a way to build up a battery of knowledge to combat the Islamophobia that I encounter in the United States.

And I'm really just scratching the surface. Barely.

There's well more than a millenia of thought preceeding my project, and I'm barely even bothering to consider it. I'm just taking the philosophy behind U. Chicago's Great Books core curriculm and plunging ahead with the original text. Except that I don't have a professor who's studied more than just the original text to provide the context I need.

But back to exegesis. Khan disagrees with Jane Dammen McAuliffe's interpretation that al-Kafirun refers to ALL disbelievers. He also disagrees with my read on this sura: that this is a general statement of religious tolerance. His take: it's narrowly scoped to those of Muhammad's contemporaries (many of whom were his own uncles) who so desperately opposed his message.

"Who is this sura talking to? Please understand: This is not for all kafirun. This is not for everybody who disbelieves. This is not for your neighbors. This is not for the Jews and the Christians. This is specifically, specifically, being used for a group of people who received the special favor of Allah for generations, and then the most special favor of Allah, the final Messenger, and on top of that the final Revelation itself; they got to hear it with their own ears from the mouth of the Messenger himself and they still refused… to believe after years and years of endless attempts. It is at that point that they get this title [al-Kafirun]."

As I said in my first post, I'm going to get it wrong. Way wrong. What's really fascinating is coming to the realization that there's really no "right" way either.

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al-Kafirun, take 2: So much for religious tolerance

October 4, 2010 3 comments

When I first read al-Kafirun, I took the sura to be an expression of religious tolerance. The text seemed pretty clear, especially the final line:

Say: O ye that reject Faith!
I worship not that which ye worship,
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship
To you be your Way, and to me mine.

Not only that, but that was what I was taught when I first encountered the sura. I've been reading a book called The Cambridge Companion to the Qur'an–which is the kind of dense, scholarly work that one would read in graduate school–and a later chapter has a much different take on what this sura means.

Background: the exegetical analysis of this sura all centers around an encounter Muhammad had with some Qurayshi unbelievers. The unbelievers in question may vary, but either they proposed that Muhammad follow their beliefs for one year in exchange for them following Muhammad's beliefs for one year, or they merely asked Muhammad to submit to one of their gods before they submitted to Muhammad's god.

The sura was immediately revealed in their presence, and could thus be interpreted as "God knows you won't submit, so take your phony religion and go to hell."

Jane Dammen McAuliffe's analysis of this sura is pretty detailed, but here's a summary of here conclusions from Chapter 9: The tasks and traditions of interpretation.

Taking account of the interpretative tradition on Q 109, it could be rendered in this way:

During his years in Mecca (or perhaps Medina) a group of unbelievers tried to coax the Prophet into abandoning, either temporarily or permanently, his allegiance to the one God. Strongly rejecting such a suggestion, Muhammad delivers a divinely inspired response and dissociates himself completely and absolutely from the idolatrous religion of his opponents: "O you unbelievers, I do not worship what you worship and you do not worship the One whom I worship. Neither, in the future, will I worship that which you worship nor will you worship the One whom I worship. Your false religion is for you and my true religion is for me."

In the commentary tradition on this sura there is no evidence of either equivocation or compromise. To use contemporary terminology, there is nothing that suggests an 'acceptance' of 'religious pluralism' or a desire to promote religious 'toleration.' Quite the contrary: the line between truth and falsehood, between what is from God and what is not from God, is clearly drawn.

This is stunningly different from the other translations.

Al-Kafirun: To you your religion and to me mine

August 27, 2010 Leave a comment

One of my Arabic professors, Farouk Mustafa, required us to memorize three suras (or ayas from longer suras) as part of our second-year Arabic course. Farouk specifically called out this one for his non-Muslim students, partly because the last line is just great.

To you your religion, and to me mine

(That's my translation, by the way–the word for religion is also more strictly translated as in Qur'anic Arabic as "way" with a capital W, meaning way of life or religion or what have you).

That line accurately captures the entire message of this brief sura. I'm sure there's more context to it–that this is related to a specific discussion with someone, perhaps a follower of the god il-Lah that wasn't willing to make the jump from monolatry to a monotheistic world with only Allah (same letters, same root, very similar word) . But the live-and-let-live principle, at least with respect to those who are religious but not Muslims, is a vital principle of Islam that is built into a millennia of religious and secular law in Muslim countries establishing a degree of religious tolerance that wouldn't be seen in Europe and North America until the last century or so.

Here's the full text:

Say: O ye that reject Faith!
I worship not that which ye worship,
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship
To you be your Way, and to me mine.

Somewhat related story: when I was on a study-abroad program in Jordan in 1995, one of the bits of advice the program leaders gave–in the event someone suggested you might want to convert to Islam because of your interest in the religion–was to reply that your family was Christian/Jewish/Buddhist, whatever. This would imply that your family wouldn't approve, and while this wouldn't matter in American culture, it's a polite and accepted way to end that train of thought. I actually had a long chat with a fellow in Syria who did make that suggestion, and I barely even finished the phrase "my father was a priest" before he was withdrawing his comment as if it were inappropriate.

Anyway, that exchange, to me, seems to have some roots in this little sura.