The Qur’an’s third chapter is entitled “The Family of Imran” – that is, Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 6:20), who is mentioned in verses 33 and 35. Like most titles in the Qur’an, this title doesn’t denote the sura’s theme, but is just a word taken from within the chapter that is simply a means to distinguish it from other chapters. According to Maududi, sura 3, which is a Medinan sura, is “especially addressed” to Jews and Christians as well as to Muslims. It contains, he says, a “continuation of the invitation in Al-Baqarah [sura 2], in which they have been admonished for their erroneous beliefs and evil morals and advised to accept, as a remedy, the Truth of the Quran.” Likewise Bulandshahri says that sura 3 is a “‘talking proof’ against the Jews, Christians and idolaters since it addresses them all. It invites them towards the truth and refutes their false beliefs, which includes the blasphemous ideologies concerning Sayyidina [Masters] Isa and Ibrahim [Jesus and Abraham].”
That concern is evident from the beginning of the chapter. V. 3 proclaims that the Qur’an now revealed to Muhammad confirms what was written in the Torah and the Gospel. Ibn Kathir explains that “these Books testify to the truth of the Qur’an, and the Qur’an also testifies to the truth these Books contained, including the news and glad tidings of Muhammad’s prophethood and the revelation of the Glorious Qur’an.”
This again explains why mainstream Islamic tradition regards the Jewish and Christian Scriptures as corrupted: they don’t, after all, confirm what is in the Qur’an, and so Jews and Christians must have dared to alter them – and now “their forgeries deceive them as to their own religion” (v. 24). Asad therefore emphasizes that “it is to be borne in mind that the Gospel frequently mentioned in the Qur’an is not identical with what is known today as the Four Gospels, but refers to an original, since lost, revelation bestowed upon Jesus and known to his contemporaries under its Greek name of Evangelion (‘Good Tiding’), on which the Arabicized form Injil is based. It was probably the source from which the Synoptic Gospels derived much of their material and some of the teachings attributed to Jesus. The fact of its having been lost and forgotten is alluded to in the Qur’an in 5:14.”
V. 4 says that Allah has now revealed the “Criterion” (Arabic فُرْقَانَ — furqan), which is, as Ibn Kathir puts it, “the distinction between misguidance, falsehood and deviation on one hand, and guidance, truth and piety on the other hand.” According to Qatada and many other Islamic authorities this “criterion” is the Qur’an itself, although others say it refers to all the revealed scriptures – in their uncorrupted form, of course.
The same verse also promises a “heavy doom” to those who reject this guidance. The 20th century Indian Muslim scholar Allama Shabbir Ahmed Usmani sees this as proof that Jesus cannot be divine, for while “God is powerful to venge [sic] and punish whenever He deems fit,” Jesus “cannot be a sovereign like God because he could not overcome the miscreants who were chasing him to kill.”
V. 7 explains that some verses in the Qur’an are clear and some aren’t, “such as,” says the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, “the opening verses of some sūras,” including the opening verse of this one. These are not to be explored too deeply by the Muslims (although they have been): Allah warns that it is only “those in whose hearts is perversity” who “follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah.”
Verses 8-27 exhort the believers not to reject faith in Allah, and warn the unbelievers that grievous punishment awaits them in hell. V. 13 refers to the Battle of Badr, the first great victory for the Muslims, when a small force prevailed against a much larger army of pagan Arabs from Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe (they had rejected his prophetic claim). Maududi says that the first thirty-two verses of sura 3 were “probably revealed soon after the Battle of Badr,” and this verse says that it was a “sign” when the two armies met; “one was fighting in the cause of Allah, the other resisting Allah.” These armies “saw as twice their number,” which Ibn Kathir explains: “When the two camps saw each other, the Muslims thought that the idolaters were twice as many as they were, so that they would trust in Allah and seek His help. The idolaters thought that the believers were twice as many as they were, so that they would feel fear, horror, fright and despair.” Allah, he says, “gives victory to His believing servants in this life…” That is, the Muslims’ victory was due to their obedience to Allah. The reverse is also true, setting a pattern that recurs throughout history: when Muslims suffer, their suffering is ascribed to their being insufficiently Islamic, and the remedy is always more Islam.
V. 19 declares that “the Religion before Allah is Islam” (إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِندَ اللّهِ الإِسْلاَم) and that the People of the Book reject it only because of “envy of each other.” The Jews and Christians, says Bulandshahri, recognized Muhammad “to be the final Prophet but their obstinate nature prevented them from accepting.” V. 20 says that they will be saved if they submit to Allah; Bulandshahri continues: “One cannot force these people to accept, but can merely advise them. Inviting them to accept Islam is the duty of the Muslim.”
Verses 28-32 is mainly concerned with warnings of Allah’s judgment, but v. 28 warns believers not to take unbelievers as “friends or helpers” (َأَوْلِيَا — a word that means more than casual friendship, but something like alliance), “unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them.” This is a foundation of the idea that believers may legitimately deceive unbelievers when under pressure. The word used for “guard” in the Arabic is tuqātan (تُقَاةً), the verbal noun from taqiyyatan — hence the increasingly familiar term taqiyya. Ibn Kathir says that the phrase Pickthall renders as “unless (it be) that ye but guard yourselves against them” means that “believers who in some areas or times fear for their safety from the disbelievers” may “show friendship to the disbelievers outwardly, but never inwardly. For instance, Al-Bukhari recorded that Abu Ad-Darda’ said, ‘We smile in the face of some people although our hearts curse them.’ Al-Bukhari said that Al-Hasan said, ‘The Tuqyah [taqiyya] is allowed until the Day of Resurrection.” While many Muslim spokesmen today maintain that taqiyya is solely a Shi’ite doctrine, shunned by Sunnis, the great Islamic scholar Ignaz Goldziher points out that while it was formulated by Shi’ites, “it is accepted as legitimate by other Muslims as well, on the authority of Qur’an 3:28.” The Sunnis of Al-Qaeda practice it today.
Next week, verses 33-63: A group of Christians meet with Muhammad – and Allah sets the record straight about Christianity.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier "Blogging the Qur'an" segments. Here is a good Arabic Qur’an, with English translations available; here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)