Does the Noble Quran consider all of the Jews and Christians to be disbelievers?

As Muslims, it is very important to maintain proper relations with the People of the Book (Jews and Christians) by not falling into extreme beliefs regarding them. There are two destructive trends that must be addressed:

  1. Hardliners, those who say all of the Jews and Christians are Kuffar (disbelievers) without exception.
  2. Ultra-liberals, those who say all of the Jews and Christians are believers without exception.

Both groups bring evidence from the Noble Quran to support their positions, but each of them ignore or downplay the evidence that contradicts their position. Here we will attempt to bring balance to the discussion so that the Noble Quran’s teachings on this subject will be clear.

The Hardline Position

Those who support the hardline position bring verses from the Quran which indicate that some of the People of the Book are disbelievers. As Allah the Exalted says:

لَمْ يَكُنِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ وَالْمُشْرِكِينَ مُنفَكِّينَ حَتَّىٰ تَأْتِيَهُمُ الْبَيِّنَةُ

Those who disbelieved among the People of the Scripture and the polytheists were not to be parted (from disbelief) until there came to them clear evidence…

[Surah Al-Bayyinah 98:1]

Such verses and others like them indicate that some of the Jews and Christians are disbelievers, particularly those who reject the Prophet Muhammad while knowing the truth of his message. However, there are numerous other verses which describe some Jews and Christians with the quality of faith. Allah the Exalted says:

وَلَوْ آمَنَ أَهْلُ الْكِتَابِ لَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَّهُم مِّنْهُمُ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَأَكْثَرُهُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ

If only the People of the Scripture had believed, it would have been better for them. Among them are believers, but most of them are defiantly disobedient.

[Surah Ali Imran 3:110]

لَيْسُوا سَوَاءً ۗ مِّنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ أُمَّةٌ قَائِمَةٌ يَتْلُونَ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ آنَاءَ اللَّيْلِ وَهُمْ يَسْجُدُونَ

يُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَيَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَيَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَيُسَارِعُونَ فِي الْخَيْرَاتِ وَأُولَٰئِكَ مِنَ الصَّالِحِينَ

وَمَا يَفْعَلُوا مِنْ خَيْرٍ فَلَن يُكْفَرُوهُ وَاللَّهُ عَلِيمٌ بِالْمُتَّقِينَ

They are not all the same; among the People of the Scripture is a community standing (in prayer), reciting the verses of Allah during periods of the night and prostrating. They believe in Allah and the Last Day, and they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and hasten to good deeds. And those are among the righteous. And whatever good they do – never will it be removed from them. And Allah is Knowing of the righteous.

[Surah Ali Imran 3:113-115]

وَإِنَّ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ لَمَن يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَمَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ وَمَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْهِمْ خَاشِعِينَ لِلَّهِ لَا يَشْتَرُونَ بِآيَاتِ اللَّهِ ثَمَنًا قَلِيلًا أُولَٰئِكَ لَهُمْ أَجْرُهُمْ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ سَرِيعُ الْحِسَابِ

Indeed, among the People of the Scripture are those who believe in Allah and what was revealed to you and what was revealed to them, being humbly submissive to Allah. They do not exchange the verses of Allah for a small price. Those will have their reward with their Lord. Indeed, Allah is swift in account.

[Surah Ali Imran 3:199]

وَمِن قَوْمِ مُوسَىٰ أُمَّةٌ يَهْدُونَ بِالْحَقِّ وَبِهِ يَعْدِلُونَ

Among the people of Moses is a community which guides by truth and by it establishes justice.

[Surah Al-A’raf 7:159]

الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمُ الْكِتَابَ مِن قَبْلِهِ هُم بِهِ يُؤْمِنُونَ

وَإِذَا يُتْلَىٰ عَلَيْهِمْ قَالُوا آمَنَّا بِهِ إِنَّهُ الْحَقُّ مِن رَّبِّنَا إِنَّا كُنَّا مِن قَبْلِهِ مُسْلِمِينَ

أُولَٰئِكَ يُؤْتَوْنَ أَجْرَهُم مَّرَّتَيْنِ بِمَا صَبَرُوا وَيَدْرَءُونَ بِالْحَسَنَةِ السَّيِّئَةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنفِقُونَ

Those to whom We gave the Scripture before it – they are believers in it. And when it is recited to them, they say, “We have believed in it; indeed, it is the truth from our Lord. Indeed we were, even before it, Muslims (submitting to Allah).” Those will be given their reward twice for what they patiently endured and [because] they avert evil through good, and from what We have provided them they spend.

[Surah Al-Qasas 28:52-54]

These are Jews and Christians who heard the message of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and found it to be in accordance with what they already believed from their scriptures. No doubt the best of these are those who embraced Islam whole-heartedly, but hardliners will argue that these verses refer only to those who formally converted to Islam. This is not necessarily the case. Ibn Kathir records:

When Jafar bin Abu Talib recited Surah Maryam to An-Najashi, the King of Ethiopia, in the presence of Christian priests and patriarchs, he and they cried until their beards became wet from tears. The Two Sahihs [Bukhari and Muslim] record that when An-Najashi died the Prophet, peace be upon him, conveyed the news to his Companions and said:

إِنَّ أَخًا لَكُمْ بِالْحَبَشَةِ قَدْ مَاتَ، فَصَلُّوا عَلَيْه

A brother of yours from Ethiopia has passed away, so come to pray over him.

[Sahih Muslim, Book 4, Number 2078]

He went out with the Companions to the prayer area, lined them up in rows, and after that led the prayer.

In this case, An-Najashi had not formally converted to Islam as he was the king of a Christian nation. However, he did not oppose the Prophet’s mission and in fact he believed in him and protected the Muslims from the persecution of the polytheists. Although he and his ministers did not formally convert to Islam, the Prophet considered him a “brother” and even performed a funeral prayer for him.

All of this evidence shows us that not every Jew and Christian is an absolute disbeliever. Rather, they are judged according to their reaction to the Prophet’s message. In fact, good relations with such Jews and Christians is an Islamic requirement:

لَّا يَنْهَاكُمُ اللَّهُ عَنِ الَّذِينَ لَمْ يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِي الدِّينِ وَلَمْ يُخْرِجُوكُم مِّن دِيَارِكُمْ أَن تَبَرُّوهُمْ وَتُقْسِطُوا إِلَيْهِمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُقْسِطِينَ

Allah does not forbid you from those who do not fight you because of religion and do not expel you from your homes – from being righteous toward them and acting justly toward them. Indeed, Allah loves those who act justly.

[Surah Al-Mumtahina 60:8]

Therefore, it is more accurate to refer to them in general as “People of the Book,” which is the term Allah uses to address them in Quran, rather than referring to them all as Kuffar. Allah Almighty says in many verses:

يَا أَهْلَ الْكِتَابِ

O People of the Book…

[Surah Ali Imran 3:64, 3:99; Surah An-Nisa 4:47, 4:171; Surah Al-Ma’idah 5:15, 5:19, 5:59, 5:68, 5:77]

Using this term will help reconcile relations between Jews, Christians, and Muslims; and it will protect Muslims from wrongfully declaring someone a disbeliever whom Allah might ultimately judge to be a believer. However, if some particular Jews and Christians are open and defiant in their rejection of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, then calling them Kuffar would be accurate.

A strong evidence against the hardline position is that the Noble Quran allows Muslims to marry Jews and Christians [verse 5:5]. If the Jews and Christians were absolute disbelievers, then how could Allah let a disbeliever be the mother of Muslim children? How could Allah let disbelief enter the Muslim home? In contrast, marriage to polytheists who worship idols is prohibited because an idolater is an absolute disbeliever, having almost nothing in common with Muslims.

Nevertheless, although Jews and Christians fall into practices considered disbelief by Islam, it is proven in authentic Hadith that Allah forgives those who commit acts of disbelief out of honest ignorance. There are many reasons a person’s act of disbelief may not necessitate absolute disbelief, as Ibn Taymiyyah explained:

التكفير هو من الوعيد ، فإنه وإن كان القول تكذيبًا لما قاله الرسول صلى الله عليه وسلم ، لكن قد يكون الرجل حديث عهد بإسلام، أو نشأ ببادية بعيدة، ومثل هذا لا يكفر بجحد ما يجحده حتى تقوم عليه الحجة‏.‏ وقد يكون الرجل لم يسمع تلك النصوص، أو سمعها ولم تثبت عنده، أو عارضها عنده معارض آخر أوجب تأويلها، وإن كان مخطئًا‏.‏

Al-Takfeer (declaring disbelief) is from the “threat [from Allah]” (not definitive in consequence). Indeed, [a person may have an excuse even] if an individual uttered a statement belying that which the Messenger stated. For perhaps he is an individual who has recently embraced Islam, or [has been] raised in a distant desert (far away land), this category is not to be charged with unbelief by reason of rejectionism, [for that which he rejected], until the establishment of the proof. Perhaps the individual is someone not conversant with the texts, or he has heard them but they have not become firm upon him, or it has been contradicted by another matter necessitating explanation, despite his error.

On this basis, Al-Ghazali considered that many of the Christians in his time would be forgiven by Allah:

 إن الرحمة تشمل كثيراً من الأمم السالفة، وإن كان أكثرهم يعرضون على النار إما عرضة خفيفة، حتى في لحظة، أو في ساعة، وإما في مدة، حتى يطلق عليهم اسم بعث النار بل أقول إن أكثر نصارى الروم والترك في هذا الزمان تشملهم الرحمة إن شاء الله تعالى

…I say in addition that Allah’s mercy will encompass many bygone communities as well, even if most of them may be briefly exposed to the Hellfire for a second or an hour or some period of time, by virtue of which they earn the title, “party of the Hellfire.” In fact, I would say that, Allah willing, most Christians of Byzantium and the Turks of this age will be covered by Allah’s mercy.

Then Al-Ghazali mentions a possible excuse for them,

بل سمعوا أيضاً منذ الصبا أن كذاباً ملبساً اسمه محمد ادعى النبوة

…all they heard since childhood was that some arch-liar carrying the name Muhammad claimed to be a prophet.

[Jackson, S. A. (2002). On the boundaries of theological tolerance in Islam: Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghāzalīʼs Fayṣal al-Tafriqa bayna al-Islam wa al-zandaqa. Karachi: Oxford University Press. p. 126]

Therefore, in general, one should leave judgment upon them in the Hereafter to Allah, as Allah the Exalted says:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَالَّذِينَ هَادُوا وَالصَّابِئِينَ وَالنَّصَارَىٰ وَالْمَجُوسَ وَالَّذِينَ أَشْرَكُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ يَفْصِلُ بَيْنَهُمْ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ  إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ

Indeed, those who have believed and those who were Jews and the Sabeans and the Christians and the Magians and those who associated with Allah – Allah will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection. Indeed Allah is a witness over all things.

[Surah Al-Hajj 22:17]

The danger of the hardline position is that it poisons relations with peaceful Jews and Christians and it encourages Muslims to be arrogant; to consider themselves spiritually and morally superior to People of the Book simply by virtue of being outwardly Muslim, even though many of these Muslims were born into the faith and never had to experience the trial of searching for the true religion. Allah Almighty says:

لَّيْسَ بِأَمَانِيِّكُمْ وَلَا أَمَانِيِّ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ مَن يَعْمَلْ سُوءًا يُجْزَ بِهِ وَلَا يَجِدْ لَهُ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ وَلِيًّا وَلَا نَصِيرًا

(Paradise) is not obtained by your wishful thinking nor by that of the People of the Scripture. Whoever does a wrong will be recompensed for it, and he will not find besides Allah a protector or a helper.

[Surah An-Nisa 4:123]

Ibn Kathir writes concerning this verse:

This verse indicates that the religion is not accepted on account of wishful thinking or mere hopes. Rather, the accepted religion relies on what resides in the heart and which is made truthful through actions. It is not true that when one utters a claim to something, he attains it merely on account of his claim. It is not true that every person who claims to be on the truth is considered as such, merely on account of his words, until his claim gains merit with proof from Allah.

Indeed, a person might be outwardly Muslim but inwardly a disbeliever, so one who simply claims to be a Muslim is by no means automatically better than a Jew or a Christian. Yet on the basis of assuming themselves superior, the hardliners tend not to make a distinction between the leaders of disbelief in opposing Islam and the common Jew or Christian in the street. They consider all Jews and Christians de facto enemies of Islam while this is not true and, in fact, can lead to unlawful aggression.

Another danger of the hardline position is that corrupted governments use this belief to control the information, growth and development of their people. They forbid their citizens from learning from Western or non-Muslim traditions based solely upon the fact that they are not Muslim. It is also used by terrorist groups like Boko Haram who murder innocent people simply because they are from Western countries. However, this contradicts the methodology of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who learned from other cultures and was kind to peaceful non-Muslims. Judamah bint Wahb reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said:

لَقَدْ هَمَمْتُ أَنْ أَنْهَى عَنْ الْغِيلَةِ حَتَّى ذَكَرْتُ أَنَّ الرُّومَ وَفَارِسَ يَصْنَعُونَ ذَلِكَ فَلَا يَضُرُّ أَوْلَادَهُمْ

I was thinking of forbidding intercourse with a breastfeeding woman, until it occurred to me that the Romans and Persians do that and it does not harm their children.

[Sahih Muslim, Book 8, Number 3391]

In this example, the Prophet, peace be upon him, looked to the experience of non-Muslim nations before making a ruling on a worldly non-religious issue. However, Muslims should not emulate non-Muslims in practices that are specific to their religion. Allah knows best.

The Ultra-Liberal Position

Those who support the ultra-liberal position bring much of the evidence we have cited, but they neglect other verses which clearly describe some Jews and Christians as disbelievers or mention the obligation for people to embrace Islam. Most clearly, Allah the Exalted says:

وَمَن يَبْتَغِ غَيْرَ الْإِسْلَامِ دِينًا فَلَن يُقْبَلَ مِنْهُ وَهُوَ فِي الْآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ

Whoever desires a religion other than Islam – never will it be accepted from him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers.

[Surah Ali Imran 3:85]

This verse and others qualify all of the verses that describe Jews and Christians with faith. It is a strong warning to those who reject Islam out of arrogance or desire. What we can understand from this verse is that Jews and Christians will never have complete faith until they embrace Islam whole-heartedly.

Likewise, it is confirmed that Jews and Christians who hear about Islam but reject the Prophet, peace be upon him, out of arrogance or desire are destined for the Hellfire. Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said:

وَالَّذِي نَفْسُ مُحَمَّدٍ بِيَدِهِ لَا يَسْمَعُ بِي أَحَدٌ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ يَهُودِيٌّ وَلَا نَصْرَانِيٌّ ثُمَّ يَمُوتُ وَلَمْ يُؤْمِنْ بِالَّذِي أُرْسِلْتُ بِهِ إِلَّا كَانَ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ النَّارِ

By the one in whose Hand is the soul of Muhammad, there is no one who hears of me from this nation of Jews and Christians and then dies without believing in my message except that he will be a companion of the Fire.

[Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 284]

The danger of the ultra-liberal position is that it dilutes the unique virtue of the Islamic faith and encourages Muslims to abandon classical learning about monotheism, faith and idolatry. If we were to hand the leadership of religion over to such people, it would not be but a few generations before the faith is abandoned entirely in favor of a liberal theo-ideology.

Furthermore, this position is a tremendous disservice for Jews and Christians because it perpetuates the incorrect belief that their religions guarantee their salvation. They do not. The only way a person can guarantee salvation is by sincerely worshipping Allah alone, without associating partners with him, according to the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and performing righteous deeds. Jews and Christians who acknowledge the Prophet Muhammad but who fail to formally convert to Islam are in danger of the Hellfire, although it is possible that Allah may forgive them for their honest mistakes, and Allah knows best about their situation.

Conclusion

The purpose of this discussion is to clarify the proper status of the People of the Book between the two extremes of absolute disbelief and absolute faith. They are not all Kuffar, but neither are they all believers. Rather, the status of each individual is something which is ultimately judged by Allah alone on the Day of Resurrection according to the circumstances and trials only Allah fully knows.

When the Noble Quran describes the People of the Book with disbelief, this refers primarily to those Jews and Christians who defiantly reject Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, while they know his message is the truth; and when the Noble Quran describes them with faith, this refers primarily to those Jews and Christians who embraced Islam whole-heartedly.

However, regarding those Jews and Christians who do not formally convert to Islam but who acknowledge the validity of the Prophet, we say that they have faith but that their faith is incomplete. They occupy an intermediate position between absolute disbelief and true faith. We do not deny the faith of those Jews and Christians who sincerely believe in Allah and perform righteous deeds, but we cannot consider them complete believers in the full-sense of the term. Neither are they included under the general rulings regarding Muslim believers, such as inheritance, marriage, and so on. Rather, we maintain that kind and peaceful relationships with them is obligatory so long as they acknowledge the validity of Islam and the right of Muslims to worship Allah alone.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.

(www.faithinallah.org / 06.04.2012)

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