The Medinan sura 60 calls for an examination of the all-important but completely overlooked question of frames of reference: what is said is not always heard the way it is meant. Consider these remarks by former President George W. Bush and Karen Hughes, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, on the Islamic Feast of Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the end of the Hajj and Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son.
In December 2006, Bush issued a statement that read in part:
For Muslims in America and around the world, Eid al-Adha is an important occasion to give thanks for their blessings and to remember Abraham’s trust in a loving God. During the four days of this special observance, Muslims honor Abraham’s example of sacrifice and devotion to God by celebrating with friends and family, exchanging gifts and greetings, and engaging in worship through sacrifice and charity.
And the previous January, Hughes said:
Eid is a celebration of commitment and obedience to God and also of God’s mercy and provision for all of us. It is a time of family and community, a time of charity….I want to read to you a message from President Bush: “I send greetings to Muslims around the world as you celebrate Eid al-Adha. When God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Abraham placed his faith in God above all else. During Eid al-Adha, Muslims celebrate Abraham’s devotion and give thanks for God’s mercy and many blessings.”
In speaking of Abraham, even when doing so in the context of Eid al-Adha, Bush and Hughes were probably thinking of Genesis 22:15-18, in which Abraham is rewarded for his faith and told he will become a blessing to the nations: “by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
But the Muslim audiences that Bush and Hughes were addressing didn’t read Genesis. They read the Qur’an. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son (who is not named) is recounted in 37:102-109. And in sura 60, Allah says that Abraham is an “excellent example” (uswa hasana, أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ, a term applied also to Muhammad in 33:21) for the believers when he tells his pagan family and people that “there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred for ever, unless ye believe in Allah and Him alone” (v. 4). The same verse goes on to say that Abraham is not an excellent example when he tells his father, “I will pray for forgiveness for you.” Hatred is held up as exemplary; forgiveness is explicitly declared to be not exemplary.
Bush and Hughes were thus reinforcing a worldview that takes for granted the legitimacy of everlasting enmity and hatred between Muslims and non-Muslims — and were doing so precisely in the context of trying to build bridges between Muslims and non-Muslims. This demonstrates once again how vitally important it was for them and all subsequent U.S. officials, as well as for the rest of us, to have a detailed understanding of the theological and cultural frame of reference of jihadists and Muslims in general. But for lack of this, not only are statements issued that could have and should have been much more carefully worded, but policy errors keep multiplying.
According to Islamic tradition, this sura was revealed after Muhammad and the Muslims set out to conquer Mecca, and a Muslim named Hatib bin Abi Baltaah notified the Meccans of the impending attack because he had relatives in Mecca. Hatib bin Abi Baltaah was a veteran of the Battle of Badr, and so Muhammad declined Umar’s request for permission to behead him, saying, “He attended Badr. What can I tell you, perhaps Allah looked at those who attended Badr and said, ‘O the people of Badr, do what you like, for I have forgiven you.'” But then Muhammad received this sura, which takes Hatib to task for taking as his friends the enemies of Allah (v. 1) and tells him that his relatives will not help him on the Day of Judgment (v. 3). He, and Muslims generally, should emulate Abraham’s hatred of his unbelieving relatives, and not his forgiveness of them (v. 4).
Nevertheless, Allah holds out the possibility that one day the Muslims and the Quraysh will reconcile (v. 7) and tells the Muslims that they are not forbidden to deal kindly and justly with those among the Quraysh who have not fought them (v. 8) — that is, says Ibn Kathir, “those who did not have a role in your expulsion,” the expulsion of the Muslims from Mecca. But they must not turn in friendship to those who did fight against them (v. 9). This passage has been invoked by jihadists today to justify what they describe as a defensive jihad against the United States, which is, in their view, fighting against Muslims.
Then the sura turns to the Treaty of Hudaybiyya, which Muhammad had concluded in 628 on disadvantageous terms with the pagan Meccans. Muhammad had shocked his men by agreeing to provisions that seemed highly unfavorable for the Muslims: those men fleeing the Quraysh and seeking refuge with the Muslims would be returned to the Quraysh, while those men fleeing the Muslims and seeking refuge with the Quraysh would not be returned to the Muslims. But according to Ibn Ishaq, when a woman of the Quraysh, Umm Kulthum, joined the Muslims in Medina, and her two brothers came to claim her in accord with the provisions of the treaty, Muhammad refused to return her: Allah had forbidden him to do so with a new revelation saying that Muslim refugees should not be returned to those whom they had fled — a revelation now enshrined in vv. 10-13.
In refusing to send Umm Kulthum back to the Quraysh, Muhammad broke the treaty. Although Muslim apologists have claimed throughout history that the Quraysh broke it first, this incident came before all those by the Quraysh that Muslims point to as treaty violations. A Muslim biographer of Muhammad, Yahiya Emerick, asserts that Muhammad based his case on a bit of legal hair-splitting: the treaty stipulated that the Muslims would return to the Quraysh any man who came to them, not any woman. Even if that is true, Muhammad soon — as Emerick acknowledges — began to accept men from the Quraysh as well, thus definitively breaking the treaty. The breaking of the treaty in this way would reinforce the principle that nothing was good except what was advantageous to Islam, and nothing evil except what hindered Islam. Once the treaty was formally discarded, Islamic jurists enunciated the principle that truces in general could only be concluded on a temporary basis of up to ten years, and that they could only be entered into for the purpose of allowing weakened Muslim forces to gather strength to fight again more effectively.
This principle is tremendously relevant in today’s geopolitical situation, whenever and wherever the State Department or any other non-Muslim political entity indicates a willingness to conclude a treaty with a Muslim group that is clearly committed to traditional Islamic principles. But as relevant as it is, this principle is universally ignored.
(Revised June 2016)