Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Four Quls: Surah al Kafirun Is About Non-Compromised, Not Tolerance (2/2)

In Part 1, we have seen that, taken out of context, the Quranic teachings can be portrayed in their total opposite.

Likewise with Surah al Kafirun, one of the Four Quls. 

Numerous ahadith (Traditions) are pointing to the reason of its revelation, with a simple background.  Namely, after all their efforts to silence Muhammad had failed, the leaders of the Quraysh had come to Muhammad the Prophet and offered a compromised.  Their proposal was simple: they suggested that Muhammad and his followers worship the idols of the Quraysh for one year, and for another year, the Quraysh would worship the God of Muhammad.1

As a response to that proposal, Allah Himself gave the answer through the revelation of Surah al Kafirun.  Muhammad was commanded to proclaim: “Say, O disbelievers, I do not worship that which you worship, nor do you worship the One whom I worship. And neither I am going to worship that which you have worshipped, nor will you worship the One whom I worship.  For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” [al Kafirun: 1-6, i.e., the translation of the whole Surah]

With that background, does this Surah sound like a proclamation on religious tolerance, as some allege?  Or, more pointedly, does it sound like a recognition of religious pluralism, the notion that all religions are true and therefore equally good, as others claim?

Quite the opposite, one must admit. 

In fact, this Surah unequivocally states that, as far as faith and worship are concerned, Islam and its counterparts are the complete opposite of each other, and the two cannot and will not meet, nor  can the two will ever mix. 

In the nutshell, Surah al Kafirun is about putting the clear line of separation between belief and unbelief, and the Muslims’ attitude as well as their approach towards unbelief, their objects of worship, as well as their religious rituals. 

This is the position of the classical commentators such as Ibnu Kathir, as well as the position of contemporary commentators like Abu Ala Maudoodi, Sayyid Qutb and Mufti Shafi’ Uthmani.  Those who take the opposite position are displaying intellectual dishonesty, if they are scholars, or ignorance, if they are laymen.

Irrespective of the intention, quoting Quranic verses out of context to fit the preconceived ideas is deplorable.  This practice can confuse the ignorant folks.  As the popular saying goes, many calamities are built upon good intentions.

Furthermore, quoting Surah al Kafirun to signify religious tolerance in Islam does not do justice to this Surah; neither does it do justice to the concept of religious tolerance in Islam.  If quoted to signify the recognition of Islam to religious pluralism, I am afraid that it is already bordering on heresy, for the idea itself is heretic, since Allah does not recognize the true religion other than Islam. 

The only acceptable “pluralism” in Islam is with regard to multiple interpretations or differences in rulings upon certain matters, whereby each different opinion is considered true or valid.  As I wrote in other entries, there are more than one ways to slice a cat.2

In the likewise manner, one can say that there are multiple ways to skin a cow, but for the meat to be consumed lawfully, it must first be slaughtered.  And the meat itself must be from lawful animal to begin with.  It cannot be a pig.  Irrespective whether it is properly slaughtered, and subsequently skinned neatly, a pig is never lawful for consumption, except during emergency, and taken only so that one can continue surviving.

Thus, when Professor Kamali put forward the argument that Islam recognizes Religious Pluralism because various Quranic verses point to the fact that there have been various “religions” sent to the Prophets before Muhammad, and that all were considered true, Professor El-Muhammady quickly pointed out that these were the Prophets sent before Muhammad.  With the advent of Muhammad as the Last Messenger, all these were abrogated. 

Moreover, we know that Muhammad has said even if Moses were still alive, Moses has no choice but to follow Muhammad, as the following Tradition puts it clearly:

“Narrated Jabir Ibn Abdullah :
Umar ibn al-Khattab brought to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) a copy of the Torah and said: ‘Allah’s Messenger, this is a copy of the Torah’. He (Allah’s Messenger) kept quiet and he (Umar) began to read it. The colour of the face of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) underwent a change, whereupon Abu Bakr said: “Would that your mother mourn you, don’t you see the face of Allah’s Messenger?’ Umar saw the face of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and said: ‘I seek refuge with Allah from the wrath of Allah and the wrath of His Messenger. We are well pleased with Allah as Lord, with Islam as religion, and with Muhammad as Prophet’. Whereupon Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said : ‘By Him in Whose hand is the life of Muhammad, even if Moses were to appear before you and you were to follow him, leaving me aside, you would certainly stray into error; for if (Moses) were alive (now), and he found my prophetical ministry, he would have definitely followed me’. (Sunan Ad-Darimi, Vol. 1, Hadith No. 435)
To his credit, Professor Kamali did not make it unequivocal that Islam recognizes Religious Pluralism as commonly defined.  He went at great length, and with great pain, to theorize what he meant by Pluralism.3  

It appears that he tries to be as diplomatic as he could, although in the end, I am not sure whether he really understands what he wrote, much less whether he really believes it.  He would have done better if he follows the mainstream thinking and risk being called “conservative” rather than taking the “progressive line” and risk being called muddle headed.

A simple folk like me would put the whole matter much more simply.

For the last few years, I have been living in a neighbourhood filled with people of multiple religious persuasions.  Living in a terrace house, on the right side, I share common fence with my Chinese neighbours, who are devoted Buddhists.  They place their altar just next to the door of my house and would burn incense daily.  Having suffered from sinusitis, the burning incense troubles me every time I inhale it, but I never complain about it.  They have the right to exercise their religion.

To my left, also sharing common fence, is Indian family.  They are devoted Hindus.  Aside from having many idols in their house, they would chant their prayers, rather loudly, from time to time.  Since the idols and the sound have nothing to do with sinusitis, I am basically oblivious with their activities. 

Right in front of my house is a devoted Chinese Christian family.  From time to time, they would sing hymns very loudly.  Occasionally they would have congregations and put their speeches on loud speaker.  Their activities generally disturb my reading, but I never complain.  They too have their right to exercise their religion.

On their part, they too never complain about the fact that the road gets congested when the Muslims perform Friday Prayer in our community mosque, just like we never complain of the same when the Hindus, Buddhists and the Christians perform whatever religious ceremony in their respective temples and church in our community.

That, to me, is religious tolerance, of respecting each other to exercise each religion.  It also means that we accept “plurality” in religions, as opposed to Religious Pluralism, which has a specific connotation.

But neither I, nor my other Muslim neighbours, ever participate or partake in their religious ceremonies.  We don’t worship what they worship; neither do they worship what we worship.  We don’t get involved in their religious rituals; neither do they get involved in our religious rituals.  We meet and mix only when non religious activities are involved.

Now, I myself do not hang the Four Quls, but many of my Muslim neighbours do.  I have not seen, however, any Muslim who hangs the Four Quls alongside with Shiva’s Idol, Christian’s Cross, or Buddha’s Statue. 

If truly Islam recognizes “Religious Pluralism,” in the sense that all religions are true and after the same truth, then a Muslim in a multi-religious country like Malaysia should try putting his Four Quls with icons of other religions.  After all, these religions are all the same.  To signify what religion one belongs to, a Muslim can put the Four Quls at the top while the rest of the idols below; a Hindu can put whatever their leading idol top, with the rest below; and so on and so forth.

Since this does not happen, then it is better to declare that Islam is different, and that we should not mix Islamic rituals with the rituals of other religions, as Surah al Kafirun clearly proclaims.  At the same time, we have to accept the fact that people of other religions have the right to exercise theirs, as numerous Quranic verses and Prophetic Traditions allude to.


1.     Said bin Mina (the freed slave of Abul Bakhtari) has related that Walid bin Mughirah, Aas bin Wail, Aswad bin al-Muttalib and Umayyah bin Khalaf met the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) and said to him: "O Muhammad, let us agree that we would worship your God and you would worship our gods, and we would make you a partner in all our works. If what you have brought was better than what we possess, we would be partners in it with you, and have our share in it, and if what we possess is better than what you have brought, you would be partner in it with us and have your share of it."At this Allah sent down: Qul ya-ayyuhal-kafirun (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Hisham also has related this incident in the Sirah) [from Ala Maudoodi’s Tafhim al Quran].

2.     Those interested may go to this “Slice Cat” Series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

3.     Go herefor Professor Kamali’s “clearly vague” discourse on Quranic Perspective of Diversity and Pluralism.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Four Quls: Surah al Kafirun Is About Non-Compromised, Not Tolerance (1/2)

It is amazing how one can look at something and see the total opposite.

It is not amazing if “this something” is the picture designed for optical illusion.  Many of us would have seen a picture that, depending on our focus, depicts both an old lady and a young woman.  In this regard, one particular picture that I like is the one whereby, if we look at close range, it shows Albert Einstein, and if we look from a farther distance, it shows Marilyn Monroe.

But when one looks at a certain verse or chapter in the Quran, which clearly tries to convey something, and yet interprets the message in its complete opposite, I am at a loss at how this illusion is called.  Perhaps this is some kind of mental illusion, whereby one’s mind appears to be deluded by some preconceived ideas.

One particular case is Surah al Kafirun, the first of the Four Quls.

This Surah, as mentioned in the Introductory Remarks, is among the last chapters in the Quran.  As Quran has 114 chapters, this Surah, numbered 109, is placed as the last sixth.  Also as mentioned in the same entry above, al Kafirun is among the short Surah, like the other Four Quls.

Reading this short Surah, one would notice the repetitious proclamation of a certain idea.  The idea is that the believers and the disbelievers do not share similar “object” of worship.  The Muslims are asked to proclaim to the disbelievers that they do not worship what the disbelievers worship, vice versa; and the Muslims are not going to worship what the disbelievers worship, vice versa.  The Surah concludes with a verse: “For you is your religion, and for me, my religion.”

In six short sentences, the unequivocal idea is put forward that the believers and the disbelievers are not on the same path as far as faith or the “object” of worship is concerned, and that each is threading on a different way of life (which is what Deen, the exact word used in the last verse, means).

Amazingly, taking the last verse, “for you is your religion, and for me, my religion,” many people, both Muslims and their counterparts, say that this verse points to Islamic religious tolerance.  More amazingly, some, in particular Professor Hashim Kamali, go as far as saying that this Surah proves the validity of Religious Pluralism, the idea that all religions are true, all are seeking salvation,  and that all are leading to the Truth1

That Islam recognizes the right of others to exercise their own religions is well known.  Numerous Quranic verses and ahadith (Traditions) point to this fact. And that Islam also forbids forced conversion to Islam is also well known, for the Quran declares that “there shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of] the religion (2:256).”

But to surmise that Surah al Kafirun is about religious tolerance, and to use it as a basis to prove Islam’s recognition of Religious Pluralism is, at best, out of place, and, at worst, suggests a sinister motive.

The concept that all religions are true, and that all are leading to the Truth, in itself, is unIslamic.  Quran already states it unequivocally that: “indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam” (3:19); and that “whoever seeks other than Islam as a religion, it will not be accepted from Him” (3:85)”; and that “this day I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour to you, and have approved for you Islam as Religion” (5:3).

Most amazingly, Kamali also quoted those three verses to commence his piece on Religious Pluralism, but end up with a completely opposite conclusion.

I make no pretence of being an equal to Professor Kamali, for he is an erudite scholar, while I am but a learner.  Yet, even a soft spoken and mild scholar, known for his moderate views, such as Professor Uthman El-Muhammady, finds Kamali’s thesis distasteful.2  A scholar noted for his more stringent view such as al Maudoodi would have taken Kamali to task.  To use Surah al Kafirun even as the basis for religious tolerance is already distasteful to him3, what more to use it as a basis for Islam’s recognition of Religious Pluralism.4

It is imperative that Quranic verses have to be understood within their contexts.  Taking a particular verse in isolation and proceeding with “too liberal” an interpretation is dangerous.  Such is generally the route taken by the enemies of Islam, of which Professor Kamali is not. 

For instance, in order to claim that Islam promotes terrorism, the enemies of Islam are fond of quoting the following verses: “Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them (2:191); “Make war on the infidels living in your neighbourhood” (9:123); “When the sacred months have passed, kill the infidels wherever you catch them” (9:5); “Maim and crucify the infidels if they criticise Islam” (5:33); “Punish the unbelievers with garments of fire, hooked iron rods, boiling water...and melt their skin and bellies”  (22:19); “Do not hanker for peace with the infidels... behead them when you catch them” (47:4).

None of those represents Islamic teachings, but taking the Quranic verses out of contexts, the enemies of Islam would quote these, and many other verses, to prove their point that Islam is a religion that promotes terrorism, and that there is no such thing as Islam being a moderate Religion, for Quran itself teaches killing the infidels.

It is not the place here to talk about the nitty gritty of Religious Pluralism, nor about Islam vs Terrorism.  The point is simply to note the danger of taking something out of context.

Likewise with Surah al Kafirun.  It has to be understood within its context.  We shall cover that in the next instalment, insyaAllah.

Stay tuned.

1. Professor Kamali’s article appears in the New Straits Time (NST) on 8 February 2011 and may be accessed below, but as far as I can recall, this is only a portion of what he wrote in the NST:

2.  Professor El-Muhammady’s rebuttal may be accessed below.  This soft spoken and extremely polite scholar, a well known figure in Malaysia, is at pain to conceal his distaste to Kamali’s thesis (at least that is the impression I gather):
3.  In case one is interested, this is what al Maudoodi says concerning using Surah al Kafirun as the argument for religious tolerance:
If the Surah is read with this background in mind, one finds that it was not revealed to preach religious tolerance as some people of today seem to think, but it was revealed in order to exonerate the Muslims from the disbelievers religion, their rites of worship, and their gods, and to express their total disgust and unconcern with them and to tell them that Islam and kufr (unbelief) had nothing in common and there was no possibility of their being combined and mixed into one entity.”

4. Religious Pluralism is commonly defined as the idea that all religions are true, all are seeking salvation and all are leading to the Truth, but Kamali makes it rather complicated.  Perhaps to make the concept palatable to his arguments.  Those interested with what he says may go to:

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Four Quls: Introductory Remarks

Many houses in Malaysia hang the “Four Quls.” 

Qul is Arabic for “say.”  The Four Quls, however, are not the four sayings, but rather the four surahs (chapters) in the Quran starting with the word “qul.”  They are, in the order of chapters in the Quran: (1) al Kafirun; (2) al Ikhlas; (3) al Alaq; and (4) an Naas.

Three of them are the last chapters in the Quran, with an Naas being the last, al Alaq the second last, and al Ikhlas the third last.  Al Kafirun is not much further, being the sixth last chapter.

They are also among the most oft-recited verses or chapters by the Muslims in their salah (prayer).  Two of them, al Kafirun and al Ikhlas, most certainly are.  When the Muslims pray alone, or when they pray Sunnah prayers (as opposed to the five obligatory prayers), these are the optional recitations they often recite after the obligatory al Fatihah.

All the chapters are short, but their virtues and standings are great.  Two of these are most prominent: al Ikhlas is considered one third of the Quran while al Kafirun is one quarter.  This does not mean, however, that if one were to read these two chapters, one is already reading 7/12, or more than half, of the Quran. 

Their virtues are not arithmetic.   What it means is that they constitute the core of the Quran, whereas other verses are detail explanations to this core.

Or, as someone asked Abû al-Abbâs b. Surayj about the meaning of the Prophet’s saying that Surah al Ikhlas equals a third of the Qur’ân, he replied:

The meaning of this is that Allah sent the Qur’ân in three parts: a third of it is comprised of legal rulings, a third is comprised of exhortations of promises and warnings, and a third is comprised of discussing Allah’s names and attributes. This chapter [al Ikhlas] brings together within it those names and attributes.  [Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (17/103)]

Whatever explanation may be given, the virtues of these two chapters are great, for the Prophet himself has stated them in authentic ahadith (Traditions).  It is no wonder, therefore, that these two are oft-recited chapters, second only to al Fatihah, whose recitation is obligatory in prayers, without which one’s prayer is invalid.

While the first two of these Four Quls are often recited during the prayers, the remaining two are oft-recited as well, but for different reason.  These last two, al Alaq and an Naas, are known as verses for seeking protection.  The former is to seek protection from black magic (sihr), while the latter is to seek protection from the conspiracy of the devils, be they of genie or mankind.

There are at least two interesting points about these last two chapters, known as Mu'awwidhatayn (the two surahs in which refuge with Allah has been sought). 

The first is that they are so closely related in terms of style and subject matter, and are said to be revealed together at once.  Thus, although they are separated into two chapters and given different names, some consider them as if they are one chapter.

The second is that Ibnu Mas’ud, one of the foremost authorities on Quran among the Companions, was alleged to be saying that they are not part of the Quran.  The Orientalists have a field day about this.  Since a companion of Ibnu Mas’ud stature claimed these chapters not to be part of the Quran, the whole authenticity of the Quran is therefore a matter of conjecture.  Their intent, of course, is to denigrate the status of Quran to the level of their Bible.

We shall talk about these issues later in the series.  Suffice to say here that even the foremost authority can make mistake, as was the case with Ibnu Mas’ud, who later repented when he realized his error.

There is also an interesting point about Surah al Kafirun.  It is used by some people to convey the tolerance in Islam, while the subject matter clearly indicates otherwise.  Some people, even among Muslims and by scholars no less, go as far as saying that this chapter indicates that Islam accepts pluralism, which is contradictory to the essence of Islam itself.  We shall talk about it later in this series.

For this introductory remarks, suffice to say that Muslims in the main take their Quran, as a sacred book if not its teachings, very seriously.  It is unthinkable for them to make fun of it, as the Christians do with their Bible. 

Many memorize the whole Quran by heart, which is not an easy job no doubt, especially to those who do not even understand Arabic.  They recite it every day in their prayers, although most of them would just recite the short chapters or verses, and do not even know the meanings.

Some even hang selected verses on the wall to get the blessing, or as part of the decoration, with the Verse of the Throne (Ayat al Kursi) easily passes as the most prominent.  The Four Quls is also prominent, being hanged in many houses. 

But among those who hang the Four Quls on the wall, I suspect few indeed who know about the stories behind these chapters, or some of the controversies surrounding them.  Many probably do not even understand properly what these chapters are all about.

As for me, I have memorized these Four Quls even before my parent taught me how to recite the Quran.  I am sure I am not alone here.   These four chapters are so oft-recited in the prayer halls, mosques and houses that their verses get imprinted in a child’s heart.

But it is only a decade or so ago that I learned the finer points about the Four Quls, and I hope to share them with you.

Stay tuned.