In President Obama’s speech in Cairo, we heard something perhaps unprecedented for an American president: references to the Qur’an—positive references! Quoting verses from the Qur’an was significant because it brought the holy text into the discussion in a way that reflects its real spirit–especially for the over 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide.
Too often, the Qur’an is portrayed as a book that endorses violence and intolerance. Verses are taken out of context in the actual text but also in terms of their historical context. The verses (or even parts of verses), for example, that are commonly cited are: “And slay them wherever ye catch them” (Chapter 2, Verse 191) and “O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends: They are but friends to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them is of them. Verily Allah guideth not a people unjust” (Chapter 5, Verse 51). It is important to remember that the Qur’an responded to events on the ground and any fair analysis of the verses, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims, must recognize this aspect of the text. Moreover, translations are not always accurate. Thus, verses like the two above need to read within those two contexts. So, the first verse is part of a verse which in turn is part of a series of verses on the issue of self-defense. Moreover, there was a clear historical context that this verse must be read in: this was a time when the Muslims were under attack from Quraish and thus were instructed to defend themselves but also not to transgress. In other words, violence and aggression must be within a framework of defense, boundaries, and rules. The second verse is problematic because of the translation that is often circulated: the word in Arabic that is used is awliyaa’ which does not mean “friends” but rather “guardians.” This distinction is important because it speaks to a reality among any community or nation: when protection and defense are needed you generally would not turn to those who are not only outside your community but may also be fighting you. On the topic of Jews and Christians, the Qur’an refers to them as People of the Book. As such, they share with Muslims a connection to the chain of prophets sent to mankind from God. Why isn’t this reference cited when discussing the Qur’an and the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims? Why are opportunities missed to show commonalities and shared principles between different faiths?
What President Obama did on June 4th, 2009, in Cairo was to engage the Qur’an in a positive light and show its place in a discussion on peace, tolerance, and shared principles. The ending of that speech summarizes the vision that all three of the monotheistic faiths share:
The Holy Qur’an tells us,”O mankind! We have created you male and a female; and we have made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another.”
The Talmud tells us: “The whole of the Torah is for the purpose of promoting peace.”
The Holy Bible tells us, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
What are your thoughts on this discussion? Do you know of other examples of citations of the Qur’an that neglect context? Conversely, are there instances when careful citation has led to better understanding and improved relations? Leave your comments below.