Sampling the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Derk Hartwig, the writer of this article, points out how the Islamic faith came to reevaluate religious universalism by addressing all of humanity.
The Muslim scholar, Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 911/1505), elaborates on the most central contents of the Qur’an in his celebrated work ‘Thorough Mastery of the Qur’anic Sciences’ and arrives at the convincing conclusion that the Quranic message circles around three major topics:
- Declaration of God’s unity, a formula already attested in the Qur’anic text (e.g. 37:35)
- Tales of former prophets and respective covenants between God and mankind (3:81),
- Legal regulations, imprint of the moral code of the prophetic religion (2:163-283)
The scholar points here to the unique character of Qur’anic revelation. Its texts do not present a continuous narrative of the past, only exempla of salvation history, but early on focus on the near future, the imminent Day of Judgment (e.g. 21:1 or 33:63).
As such, the three aspects of the Qur’an are, moreover, essential features characterising the successive steps in the emergence of the new community of believers that goes parallel with the proclamation of the Qur’an over some 23 years, stretching from the earliest revelation in ‘Recite’ (96:1) to the latest revelation in ‘This day have I perfected your religion’ (5:3). Al-Suyuti, could have also easily observed the dramatic shifts between themes. So it could be said that the emphasis on eschatology of the earlier Makkan period shifted, in Muhammad’s later years in Madina, to the organisation of the newly emerged community by means of legislation.
The knowledge of the unity of God (x ), who makes himself known through his creation and through his revelation, is certainly one of the most central topics in the Qur’an, and so one finds not only general remarks about the omnipotence of God, but a more concrete declaration of faith that according to traditional Muslim belief equals one third of the Qur’an. “Say, ‘He is God, the One. God is the All-embracing. He neither begat, nor was begotten, nor has He any equal.”(112:1-4).
For Jews and Christian this passage is of utmost significance, as they find their respective faith proclamations confirmed and/or rejected. It is obvious that the Christian doctrine of Jesus Christ, ‘the Son of God, one-in-being with the Father’ is rejected. But one thing is rhetorically confirmed, often gone unnoticed, namely the absolute oneness of God, being in concord with the first line of the Jewish Shema prayer (Deuteronomy 6:4) – an affirmation of the Jewish faith and a declaration of God’s unity. It constitutes a basic confession of faith, declaring that the God – who identified himself as “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14), the eternally unchanging Being beyond comprehension is One; and that He alone is God who was, is, and will be.
The key word ‘One’ (112:1), ehad/ahad, a still audible quotation, exposes the difference between the Jewish creed and the firm belief of the new community. By replacing the address ‘Hear, O…’ specifying a particular group in the pool of humanity, with the undetermined ‘Say’ clearly attests that the Qur’anic text addresses all human beings, in short: tribal and national belonging was transferred into a universal faith; “[O Prophet], We did not send you but as a mercy to all the nations.” (21:107)
In accordance with the setting, into which the Qur’an was revealed – the Qur’an was addressed to people living within a culturally diverse background infused with pagan and monotheistic traditions of Judaism and/ or Christianity alike – the Qur’an sees God in contrast, not to say in total opposition, to man. This is the basis for a moralistic world order where no action goes unrewarded: man who is on the right path and man who has been misguided. Consequently God’s wrath, the anthological counterpart to Divine mercy is recorded in the examples of the past or the stories of the ‘vanished people’, who have received Divine guidance before, but have denied the prophets, and have been subject to God’s judgment. The Qur’an refers explicitly to the covenant with Adam (20:115) and covenants with the ‘people of the book’, the Jews (2:83 & 3:154) and the Christians (5:14). Muhammad himself is accepted into a covenant (33:7 & 3:81), placing him in direct succession with Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, son of Mary.
In logical consequence Muhammad is placed at the end of the prophetic line as the ‘Seal of the Prophets’ (33:40). Following this new consciousness, one encounters, an ongoing criticism of the Children of Israel. At the very numerical centre of al-Baqarah, the new community is called a ‘just community’ (2:143), indirectly rejecting the idea of the Biblical notion of God’s ‘treasured people,’ a word denoting the special position of Israel in its relationship to God as his elect people.
Likewise the New Testament contemplates the old idea of God’s ‘treasured possession,’ as Jesus Christ has purchased this treasure with his own blood, his pleasant sacrifice. The atonement fulfils his end of the bargain, offering the new House of Israel protection and mercy, purification and sanctification. They, however, must accept the sacrifice and fulfill in turn the commandments associated with it (1 Peter 2:9): “… you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.”
As we have seen before and as we have seen now the Qur’an is refuting the Judaeo-Christian notion of election, and is, thus, universalising the new message of the Qur’an and declaring a new community, open to all humanity: “And thus we have made you a just community…” (2:143)
After Moses, and with him the covenant of Sinai, i.e. the Torah is disqualified; the new community traces its origins from now on back to the biblical patriarch Abraham and awards him the status of a monotheist (hanif) who was neither Jew nor Christian (3:67). In this light while Muhammad brings the Divine message to a people living within a milieu heavily infused with narratives of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the Qur’an is addressed to ‘unscriptured people’ (3:20, 3:75) and in clear Arabic language, so that they may understand (26:195).
Consequently, the new revelation, replaces the covenant given to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 19-20; Q 7:171-174); and finally the ‘People of the Book’ are accused of having distorted the divine message (tahrif) (e.g. 2:75, 174). This polemical attack finds its peak in Qur’an (4:46): “Among the Jews are those who pervert words from their meanings and say, ‘We hear and disobey’ and ‘Hear without listening!’ and ‘Listen to us!’ twisting their tongues and reviling the faith. But had they said, ‘We hear and obey’ and ‘Listen’ and ‘Look at us’ it would have been better for them and more upright. But God has cursed them for their faithlessness, so they will not believe except a few.”
The message is no longer offered to the Israelites alone, but to all humanity, who in pre-existence accepted the offered covenant. So they answer with a clear: “Yes, verily. We testify”. Once the Children of Israel as ‘treasured people’ are disqualified, Muhammad becomes God’s ‘chosen’ (2:252), like the biblical prophets before him, and his followers become the new Divine community, the object of God’s plan of salvation. The legislation of the new community is given its fullest form in the Qur’an (2:163-242), including the regulations concerning dietary laws, fasting and the pilgrimage to Makkah (hajj); and thus, subsequently the Qur’an turns into the book of guidance, “whereof there is no doubt…” (2:2).
It is through the inimitable Message of the Qur’an that the One God of Judaism, Christianity and Islam made himself known once again and for all – as an often quoted prophetic tradition, or ‘hadith qudsi’, that is not by all scholars accepted to be an authentic report of a non-Quranic word of God, frames this in most beautiful words: “I was a hidden treasure, I loved to be known. Therefore, I created the creation so that I would be known.”
However, it is through the verses of the Qur’an that the human recognises God’s unity and in consequence realises that he/she is object to His terribly just judgment: “And do not invoke another god besides God; there is no god except Him. Everything is to perish except His Face. All judgment belongs to Him, and to Him you will be brought back. (28:88).
Read as an authentic textual witness documenting the formation of a community in negotiation and/or competition with the diverse Jewish and Christian traditions, the Qur’an emerges as a unique voice in the interpretive milieu that can no longer be seen as an insufficient replica of the Bible, the product of a confused impostor, but must be acknowledged as a theologically most challenging text; a text that emerges as a response to the debates prevalent in the Arabian peninsula, finally claiming its own place in the midst of the already existing Jewish and Christian traditions. As such the Qur’an becomes not only visible as the universal message addressed to all humanity, but as the literary witness of complex processes of negotiation concerning covenant, prophethood, legislation, and redemption.
The article was first published in Islam-today magazine, and written by Dirk Hartwig who studied Arabic Language and Literature, Hebrew and Judaic Studies and Iranian Studies in Berlin, Jerusalem, New York and Cairo.