I have long been intrigued by an exchange between Abraham and God that comes early in the Qur’an: “Behold! Abraham said: ‘My lord! Show me how you give life to the dead.’ [God] said: ‘Do you not then have faith?’ He said: ‘Yes, but [I ask this] to satisfy my heart.’ [God] replied: ‘Take then four birds and teach them to incline toward [or obey] you. Then place a part of them on every hill around you, and then summon them. They will come flying to you. And know that God is almighty, wise'”(2:260). This verse follows several others and precedes many more in which Abraham is depicted as steadfast in his private faith and his public preaching—so much so that he is called khalil Allah (the friend of God) based on Q. 4:125. Why would the Qur’an even allude, I have wondered, to the possibility that this great prophet of God would harbor any doubts about God’s power? Could it be that through this dialogue the Qur’an is intimating that skepticism and open questioning are intrinsic aspects of faith?
To me, this verse is one of the most powerful commandments for tolerance contained in the Qur’an, for if God can answer a prophet’s troubled heart with such compassionate understanding, how much more likely is He to understand the doubts of ordinary humans? And if God understands, then how much more incumbent is it upon us human beings to do the same?
The Qur’an is a deep well from which Muslims may draw plentiful supplies of tolerance, pluralism, respect for diversity—even doubt. Khaled Abou El Fadl outlines these resources well in his thoughtful essay. I agree with him that such resources have been misappropriated by Muslim puritans and extremists. But his argument for misappropriation fails to account for the more widespread exclusivity and intolerance that we encounter in the Islamic intellectual heritage. Narrow and illiberal readings of the Qur’an are not exclusively the province of fringe elements. If that were so, the task of constructing liberal and tolerant societies among Muslim populations would be immeasurably easier. If contemporary Muslims are to realize the full “blessings” of the Qur’an’s spirit, as Abou El Fadl urges, they must face up to the full “burden” of their political and intellectual history.
I want to be clear about my argument: I am not suggesting that Islamic history is one of intolerance. The historical record is clear that Islamic societies of the pre-modern period were generally as accommodating of diversity and religious freedom as their contemporaries in other parts of the world, and in many instances more so. The same cannot be said of modern Islamic states and societies, which lag far behind international standards of equality, democracy, and human rights. My point is that whether we are discussing tolerance, diversity, and freedom in pre-modern or modern Islamic societies, Muslims have generally fallen far short of qur’anic standards. And some of the responsibility for this failure in practice must be ascribed to the limitations in the interpretation of the Qur’an itself.
To return to Q. 2:260, for example: The most influential commentators have gone to great lengths to eliminate the faintest hint of doubt from Abraham’s plea to God. Most classical and modern exegetes agree with al-Qurtubi (d. 1273) that Abraham’s request does not signify doubt at all, only the desire “to rise from the knowledge of certainty [‘ilm al-yaqin] to the reality of certainty [‘ayn al-yaqin].”1 Underlying this exegetical activity is the orthodox dogma that prophets are protected from error and doubt. This principle has to be maintained even if it requires glossing over God’s direct question to Abraham, “Do you not then have faith?” If God were to give Abraham “the reality of certainty,” then Abraham would no longer require faith. Moreover, we ordinary humans cannot likewise petition God for proof to solidify our faith.
The Qur’an repeatedly points to the complexities and ambiguities of faith. It stresses throughout the narrow line separating righteousness from self-righteousness, and admonishes believers to be humble in the knowledge that no person nor even any creed can claim to have the full truth. Yet repeatedly, the tradition of qur’anic exegesis strains to prove the opposite.
Let us consider how two qur’anic verses cited by Abou El Fadl have been treated over the long history of exegesis. First, Q. 2:62: “Those who believe, and the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and act righteously shall have their reward with their Lord. On them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” The verse seems clearly to be extending God’s salvation to all humans who profess faith and do good deeds. Nevertheless, the majority of classical commentators found ways to limit its promise. One method was to argue for what Jane McAuliffe calls “salvific stages”: thus only Jews, Christians, and Sabians who had adhered to the “pristine” faith—which Islamic belief holds to be common to all prophets—before the advent of Islam are promised God’s favor in the afterlife.2 Once Muhammad brought the final revelation, only true Muslims should consider this verse as applying to them.
A second means of circumscribing the verse’s universality, which reinforces the first, is to argue that it has been abrogated by subsequent revelation, including Q. 3:85: “If anyone desires a religion other than Islam, never will it be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be among the losers.” Instead of attempting to reconcile the verses by contextualizing them in time and in the full qur’anic text, many exegetes have employed the principle of abrogation as a blunt instrument. Hundreds of verses could, in this manner, be labeled “no longer relevant.” The fact that Q. 2:62 is repeated almost verbatim in Q. 5:69, a verse believed to have been revealed after Q. 3:85, is conveniently forgotten.
Q. 2:62’s message of tolerance is indirect; Muslims have no monopoly in the life to come and thus can claim no exclusive righteousness in this life. Another verse cited by Abou El Fadl, Q. 5:48, far more directly asserts that religious diversity is not something simply to be tolerated as a necessary evil, but a necessary good to be embraced by all who sincerely strive for the truth: “To each among you have We prescribed a law and an open path. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community. But [His plan is] to test you in what He has given you. So strive as in a race in all the virtues. The goal of you all is to God. It is He who will show you the truth of the matters in which you differ.”
This verse is so arresting in its breadth, clarity, and self-confidence that it would seem to leave little room for controversy. Yet again, mainstream qur’anic interpreters found ways to problematize the clearest verses, whose meaning is buttressed by the thrust of qur’anic teaching, while upholding other verses of limited scope as authoritative. Thus, Ibn Kathir (d. 1373)—following a line of reasoning developed by al-Tabari (d. 923) and others—suggests that the separate communities addressed in this verse are pre-Muhammadan communities, and that with the advent of the Muslim community, all other previously valid courses had been annulled by Islam.3 The fact that the verse contains the imperative verb istabiqu, which conveys the sense of multiple, contemporaneous actors “vying” or “racing” toward virtue, is again conveniently glossed over.
There are of course a number of political and sociological reasons why the exegetical tradition tended toward conservatism and exclusivity when dealing with qur’anic views of the Other. These historical factors need not detain us here; what is most important is to acknowledge this legacy frankly and to chart a course that both responds to it and departs from it. Contemporary Muslim interpreters can ill afford to disregard the conservative legacy, or simply associate it with extremist forms of Islam, for the Qur’an still speaks to millions of the faithful through the voices of its classical commentators. But if modern Muslims are to build tolerant and pluralistic societies based on qur’anic teachings, they must also be prepared to chart a new exegetical course.
1 Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Qurtubi, al-Jami’ li ahkam al-Qur’an, vol. 2 (Cairo: Dar al-Katib al-‘Arabi, 1967), 299; translated by Mahmoud Ayoub, The Qur’an and Its Interpreters, vol. 1 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 265.
2 Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Qur’anic Christians: An Analysis of Classical and Modern Exegesis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 111.
3 Isma’il ibn ‘Umar ibn Kathir, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘azim, vol. 2 (Beirut: Dar al-Andalus, 1966), 589; Cf. Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Jami’ al-bayan ‘an tawil ay al-Qur’an, vol. 3 (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 1997), 248.