If Allah had willed, the nations would have believed the prophets he sent to earth, but this was not his will, although his reasons are left unexplained (2:253). It would have been interesting to know why he sent prophets while willing that they not be believed, but we’re not let in on the secret.
Then comes the Throne Verse (Ayat al-Kursi), 2:255. According to Islamic scholar Mahmoud Ayoub, this verse is “regarded by Muslims as one of the most excellent verses of the Qur’an. It has therefore played a very important role in Muslim piety.” The Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, is said to have agreed with a claim that this verse is so powerful that “whenever you go to your bed, recite the Verse of ‘Al-Kursi’ (2.255) for then a guardian from Allah will be guarding you, and Satan will not approach you till dawn” and with another about its being the “greatest verse in the Book of Allah.”
Qurtubi reports that “when the Throne Verse was revealed, every idol and king in the world fell prostrate and the crowns of kings fell off their heads,” and recounts a saying by Muhammad in which Allah tells Moses of the many blessings that people will receive if they recite the Throne Verse — another manifestation of the assumption that the People of the Book had at least some of the contents of the Qur’an, but perversely effaced them from their own Scriptures.
Immediately following that verse comes the Qur’an’s famous statement that “there is no compulsion in religion” (v. 256).
Muslim spokesmen in the West frequently quote that phrase to disprove the contention that Islam spread by the sword, or even to claim that Islam is a religion of peace. However, according to an early Muslim, Mujahid ibn Jabr, this verse was abrogated by Qur’an 9:29, in which the Muslims are commanded to fight against and subjugate the People of the Book. Others, however, according to the Islamic historian Tabari, say that the “no compulsion” verse was never abrogated, but was revealed precisely in reference to the People of the Book. They are not to be forced to accept Islam, but may practice their religions as long as they pay the jizya (poll-tax) and “feel themselves subdued” (9:29). No compulsion indeed.
Are you a non-Muslim? Then Allah hates you (Qur’an 3:32).
Are you Jewish or Christian? In the Qur’an’s third chapter, Allah will tell you why you’re following a false religion.
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. Allah proclaims that the Qur’an now revealed to Muhammad confirms what was written in the Torah and the Gospel (v. 3). 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, Allah says, “they were deluded in their religion by what they were inventing” (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.”
In contrast to the Jews’ and Christians’ corrupted scriptures, Allah has now revealed the “Criterion” (Arabic فُرْقَانَ — furqan, v. 4), 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 “severe punishment” to those who “disbelieve in the verses of Allah.” 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.”
After saying that he has revealed this great Criterion of what is right and wrong, Allah cautions believers against getting carried away, explaining 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 sura. 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 deviation” who “follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation. And no one knows its interpretation except Allah” (v. 7). Why would Allah include material in his “clear” revelation of guidance to human beings that only he knows the meaning of? He doesn’t say.
Allah then exhorts the believers not to reject faith in him (vv. 8-27), and warns the unbelievers that grievous punishment awaits them in hell. He refers to the Battle of Badr (v. 13), 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, Maududi 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: when Muslims suffer, all too often they ascribe their suffering to being insufficiently Islamic, and the remedy is always more Islam. There is no idea in Islam of the Biblical principle that the wicked may prosper because of the fallen nature of the world — in Islam, if the wicked prosper, it is because the Muslims aren’t Islamic enough.
Allah declares that “the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam” (إِنَّ الدِّينَ عِندَ اللّهِ الإِسْلاَم) (v. 19), and that the People of the Book reject it only “out of jealous animosity between themselves.” The Jews and Christians, says Bulandshahri, recognized Muhammad “to be the final Prophet but their obstinate nature prevented them from accepting.” Allah says that they will be saved if they submit to Allah (v. 20); 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.”
After that, Allah warns of his judgment, and above all warns believers not to take unbelievers as “friends or helpers” (َأَوْلِيَا — a word that means more than casual friendship, but something more like an alliance), “except when taking precaution against them in prudence” (v. 28). 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 “except when taking precaution against them in prudence” 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.” Sunnis in many jihadi and Islamic supremacist groups practice it today.
Jesus was Moses’ nephew? Hey, it’s in the Qur’an.
According to Muhammad’s first biographer, Ibn Ishaq, the first eighty verses of Sura 3 were revealed after a delegation of Christians came from the Yemeni city of Najran. One of the leaders of this delegation was a bishop, Abu Haritha ibn Alqama, who received money, servants, and other favors from “the Christian kings of Byzantium.” Abu Haritha, says Ibn Ishaq, knew that Muhammad was a prophet, but refused to accept him for fear of losing the loot that the Byzantines were lavishing upon him.
Ibn Ishaq records that the delegation “differed among themselves in some points, saying [Jesus] is God; and He is the son of God; and He is the third person of the Trinity, which is the doctrine of Christianity.” They presented arguments defending these propositions to Muhammad, but he would have none of it. When they told him that they had submitted to God, he responded: “You lie. Your assertion that God has a son, your worship of the cross, and your eating pork hold you back from submission.” Allah then revealed much of sura 3, refuting their assertions and giving the world the truth about Jesus and Christianity.
He begins by telling the story of Mary’s birth and early life, telling us in that her mother was the “wife of Imran” (v. 35) — that is, Amram, the father of Moses and Aaron. This verse, along with 19:28, in which Mary is called “sister of Aaron,” has given rise to the charge that Muhammad confused Miriam the sister of Moses with Mary the Mother of Jesus, since the names are identical in Arabic: Maryam (مَرْيَمُ). When confronted about this, Muhammad had a ready answer: “The (people of the old age) used to give names (to their persons) after the names of Apostles and pious persons who had gone before them” (Sahih Muslim 25.5326).
However, while this may explain why Mary is called “sister of Aaron,” it doesn’t explain why she is clearly depicted here as the daughter of Imran. Clearly the authors of the Qur’an really did think that Jesus was Moses’ nephew, the son of his sister.
In any case, Imran’s wife dedicates the child in her womb to the service of Allah (v. 35); when she gives birth, she says of Mary, “I seek refuge for her in You and her descendants from Satan, the expelled” (v. 36). Every child, said Muhammad, is “pricked by the Satan” after he is born — that’s why babies cry when they’re born. However, Mary and Jesus were preserved from this touch of Satan. Although the child is a female and “the male is not like the female” (v. 36), the wife of Imran fulfills her vow: Mary is dedicated to Allah’s service. Bulandshahri says that she went to live in the Temple in Jerusalem, which he calls the Baitul Muqaddas (“Holy House”). In keeping with the Islamic idea that the original message of all the Jewish prophets was Islam, Islamic tradition identifies it as a mosque. There Mary is fed miraculously (v. 37).
This story recalls one told in the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century Christian document: in it, Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne, prayed to God for an end to their childlessness, and dedicated the child they subsequently conceived to the Lord in thanksgiving. When Mary was three, she went to live in the Temple, where she was fed by an angel. This is the sort of thing that earned Muhammad the charge that he was just retailing “legends of the former peoples” (6:25, 8:31, 16:24, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13), not divine revelation. But Muslims respond that the Qur’an is sorting out the true from the false about Christianity among the revelations that were corrupted by the followers of Jesus.
Allah then recounts the birth of John the Baptist (vv. 38-41), hitting the highlights of Luke 1:5-80: angels tell Zechariah he will have a son, he asks how this can be since he is old, and he is rendered unable to speak. Then Allah begins to tell the story of the birth of Jesus, beginning with a reaffirmation of Muhammad’s prophethood (v. 44): Ibn Kathir explains that even though Muhammad wasn’t present at these events, “Allah disclosed these facts” to him as if he had been an eyewitness.
The angels’ announcement of Jesus’ birth (vv. 45-6) differs from Gabriel’s annunciation in Luke 1:30-35 in several key particulars: in the Qur’an, Jesus is identified as a “word” from Allah and is called “Messiah,” but not “Son of the Most High.” Muslim exegetes explain that Jesus is Allah’s word not in the sense of being divine, as in John 1:1, but because he was created without a human father by Allah’s word, as was Adam — as v. 59 explains. Allah says that he will teach Jesus “writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel” (v. 48): in the Qur’an, the Gospel is not the news about Jesus, but a book that he is given by Allah. Allah recounts several miracles Jesus performed, each one “by permission of Allah” (v. 49). Bulandshahri explains that this clause is repeated in order to emphasize that only by Allah’s permission does Jesus perform miracles — since “after witnessing these miracles, especially the raising of the dead, it is possible that a person may consider Sayyidina Isa [Master Jesus] to be Allah himself.” One of these miracles involves bringing clay birds to life, which appears in the second-century Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
When the Jews reject Jesus, he gathers disciples who say, “We have believed in Allah and testify that we are Muslims” (اشْهَدْ بِأَنَّا مُسْلِمُونَ) (v. 52). And while Jesus’ enemies plotted against him, Allah, “the best of schemers” (v. 54), plotted also, revealing that he would “raise [Jesus] to Myself.” This, says Ibn Ishaq, refuted “what they assert of the Jews in regard to his crucifixion” — to which we will return in sura 4, which says that “they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them” (v. 157).
“This,” says Allah, is “the true narration. And there is no deity except Allah” (v. 62) — in other words, Jesus is not divine. Allah tells Muhammad in v. 61 to challenge those who believe otherwise: since “knowledge has come to you,” he should say to dissenters: “Come, let us call our sons and your sons, our women and your women, ourselves and yourselves, then supplicate earnestly and invoke the curse of Allah upon the liars.”
According to Ibn Ishaq, when the Christian delegation from Najran heard this, they asked Muhammad for time to confer among themselves. Then one of their leaders told the rest: “O Christians, you know right well that Muhammad is a prophet sent (by God) and he has brought a decisive declaration about the nature of your master. You know too that a people has never invoked a curse on a prophet and seen its elders live and its youth grow up. If you do this you will be exterminated. But if you decide to adhere to your religion and to maintain your doctrine about your master, then take your leave of the man and go home.”
So they went to Muhammad, declined his challenge, and went home, obstinate renegades confirmed in their rebellion against Allah.
Are you a Jew or a Christian? You know better: you know Islam is true, but willfully reject it. It’s in the Qur’an.
In verses 64-120 of the Qur’an’s Sura 3, “The Family of Imran,” Allah continues to charge that Jews and Christians reject Islam only out of perversity, and call them back to the true faith of Abraham. Allah caps the Qur’an’s presentation of Christianity in verses 33-63 by calling the People of the Book to accept Islam. This is presented as an invitation to an “agreement”: “that we will not worship except Allah and not associate anything with Him and not take one another as lords instead of Allah” (v. 64). That Qur’an verse also calls Jews and Christians to come to a “common word” with Muslims, that they will worship only him. “Common Word” became the name of a popular Muslim-Christian dialogue initiative that continues to this day.
This initiative began with a letter of the same name from Muslim scholars to Christian leaders; the Muslims never explained that the rest of the passage from which the phrase “Common Word” was taken called Jews and Christians to stop associating partners with Allah in worship and worship Allah alone — that is, become Muslims. But this Qur’an verse calls on Christians to reject Christ’s divinity, as well calling on Jews and Christians to stop deifying their “rabbis and monks,” which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn mentions in connection with this verse. That charge comes from Qur’an 9:31.
Allah rebukes the Jews and Christians for arguing over something about which they “have no knowledge” (v. 66): the religion of Abraham. The Patriarch couldn’t have been a Jew or a Christian, says v. 65, because “the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed until after him.” In reality, he was a Muslim hanif (حَنِيفًا مُّسْلِمً) (v. 67) — as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “Abraham in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian, but he was a Muslim, professing the Oneness of God, and a hanīf, who inclined away from all other religions towards the upright one; and he was never of the idolaters.”
What’s more, Muhammad and the Muslims are “the nearest of kin to Abraham,” as Ibn Kathir says: “This Ayah [verse] means, ‘The people who have the most right to be followers of Ibrahim are those who followed his religion and this Prophet, Muhammad, and his Companions.'”
Of course, if Abraham was a Muslim, Judaism is completely illegitimate. The Jews (and Christians) are simply renegades from the true faith of their own prophets — which was Islam. And that is the view of Judaism and Christianity that many Muslims have today. Allah emphasizes the perversity of some of the Jews and Christians: they wish to lead the Muslims astray, when it is actually they who go astray, rejecting the “signs of Allah” even though they are witnesses of them (vv. 69-70). “Signs” is in Arabic “ayat,” which is also the word used for the verses of the Qur’an.
This therefore could refer to the delegation of Christians from Najran and/or other Christians and Jews who heard Muhammad recite the Qur’an and still rejected Islam — and, according to Islamic accounts, knew Muhammad was a prophet but didn’t want to admit it for selfish reasons. Says Maududi: “This is why the Qur’an repeatedly blames them for maliciously misrepresenting the signs of God which they saw with their own eyes and to which they themselves attested.” And they even stooped, as recounted in verses 71-2, to subterfuges to try to turn others away from Islam: they speak untruth about Allah while they know” (v. 75).
Among these dirty tricks, they pass off their own words as Holy Scripture (v. 78); some skeptics have speculated that Muhammad himself, seeking information about earlier revelations, was among their victims, before he caught on to the ruse.
Allah dismisses as “impossible” the idea that a prophet — clearly Jesus — could have taught that he was divine (vv. 79-80). He is just a prophet like the other prophets (v. 84), and Allah will accept from no one any religion other than Islam (v. 85). And those who reject the true Faith after accepting it bear “he curse of Allah and the angels and the people, all together” (verses 86-7). This refers, says Maududi, to the “Jewish rabbis of Arabia” who acknowledged and then denied Muhammad.