Sunday, February 28, 2010

DC Muslim Women and the Front of the Mosque

In an unusual display of presidential involvement in a local matter, President Omama was quick to criticize the police department of Cambridge, Massachusetts, in July 2009, for arresting Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates in his home following an incident with a police officer. The President said, "I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting someboday when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."

If the President was upset about that incident, he must be livid livid livid over the action recently taken by the police department in his own backyard of Washington D.C. On the weekend of 22 February, about 20 Muslim women engaged in a peaceful protest to be allowed to pray in the main prayer hall of their local mosque with the men. Mosque officials called the police, who gave the women the option of leaving or being arrested. The women called off the protest, but say their struggle will continue.

When the media asked Imam Sayyid Burmi the reason for men and women being forced to pray separately, he replied, "If I stand next to a woman, maybe the focus will change and no longer be on God the Almighty. That's why we put up the partition."

Before getting to the main point of this posting, which is that I'm waiting with bated breath for the President's response, let me throw out a few comments:

1. I'm sure Jannah bint Hannah, Fatimah Thompson, and the other women involved in the protest at their mosque have a high opinion of their Prophet as the world's greatest example of honoring women's rights. As I posted recently, I don't share that optimism. Nevertheless, congratulations to Jannah, Fatimah, and their friends for their courage.

2. The Imam's reason for the gender separation in prayer, that he might be distracted from focusing on God were he praying next to a woman, is a common Muslim response. Muslim men seem to have a hard time controlling their desires or emotions, but rather than develop that self-control find it much easier to just blame the women. After all, millions of Christian men pray next to women in churches every week without their "focus being changed". Why are Muslim men any different?

3. The Imam, however, was not being completely honest. The real reason for separating men from women in prayer is that Muhammad claimed that the prayer of a man was invalidated if a dog, mule, or woman passed in front of him when he was praying. Even his wife Aisha noted this was putting women on the level of dogs (Vol 1 Bk 9 Nr 490).

This is the same prophet who stated that a man needed to perform ritual ablutions after he had gone to the bathroom or touched a women (Quran 4:43). If a woman in Islam is placed on the level of feces, a mule, or a dog, it is not difficult to understand why any self-respecting Muslim man would not want her standing next to him in prayer. (By the way, your English-language copy of the Quran intended for Western audiences deliberately mistranslates 4:43. It probably says a man needs to wash himself after having "sexual relations" with a woman. The Arabic simply says if he "has touched" a woman, which would include her brushing against him in the prayer line at the mosque).

And now to the point of this posting. I'm waiting for the President's response. If he felt the need to comment on the arrest of a man in Massachusetts, he must have something to say about the police of Washington D.C. threatening to arrest women for wanting to pray with men in a public house of worship. The President's involvement in full equality for Muslim women in America is just as important and perhaps more so than his intervention in what he thought to be a racial incident in Cambridge, Mass.

But just in case we have to wait a while for the President's response, let's give it up for Fatimah and Jannah - and someone warn the good Imam Sayyid Burmi to watch out for the American Woman!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sudoku and Understanding Muhammad

For those who like simple analogies, here's one: understanding Muhammad is like doing a Sudoku (or crossword or jigsaw) puzzle. As long as you put down the correct number (or word or piece), everything flows smoothly until completion. Make one uncorrected mistake, and you find yourself forcing things to make them fit. You can do that for a few moves, but unless you correct the error it's impossible to finish.

To solve the Muhammad puzzle correctly, begin with a young man in Mecca with a very big dream. Leading trade caravans to Damascus as well as his interaction with caravans crisscrossing Mecca opened his eyes to a world much larger than his own. He knew that his family, beginning with his ancestor Qusay and great-grandfather Hashim, had successfully led their Quraysh tribe but that leadership had deteriorated in the generations preceeding his birth. Other Arab leaders had successfully united their tribes and formed kingdoms - there were at least eight at the time throughout Arabia and Yemen - in a way that no-one in Mecca had been able to do. Arab armies had for the first time gained an impressive vicory over the mighty Perisan Empire in present-day Iraq, and forced Ethiopian invaders from Yemen. Why could he not also unite the tribes of Mecca under his leadership and form a great kingdom?

It was a dream that developed into a powerful concept as the young Muhammad approached the age of forty. From Christians and Jews he learned that the great King David had been accepted by his people as a Prophet before he was crowned King at the same age. From them he also learned that one invisible God who spoke through his Prophet was much more powerful than the flimsy tribal gods whose images filled the Kaaba. He, Muhammad, would also become that Prophet-King, and his tribe would accept him as their leader with the words of Allah flowing through him to confirm his authority.

His initial message was a simple one, "I am the Prophet of Allah, who wants you to follow me. If you don't, he will be very angry at you." His promise to the many slaves of Mecca that obeying him would end in their enjoying the treasures of the Roman and Persian Empires (Bukhari vol 8 book 78 nrs 625, 626) gained him some converts. Their loyalty to their slaveowners was now divided, with the Quraysh soon turning against Muhammad instead of accepting him as their Prophet and King as he had anticipated. His messages grew more and more stident, with the short Quranic Meccan suras containing more than 140 verses vividly describing the hell awaiting those who refused him.

When it became clear that his own tribe would not accept him, he approached others for the same purpose. The Thaqif in Ta'if were no more interested than the Quraysh, and neither was any other tribe. After 11 difficult years, Muhammad met a few men from the Aus and Khazraj tribes in Medina, led by Abbas Ibn Ubada, who were envious of the prosperity of the Jewish tribes who had lived there for centuries. The Aus and Khazraj often robbed the Jews, who retaliated by warning that a Prophet would come to punish them. Abbas and his comrades responded to Muhammad's message by concluding they should attract him to their side before the Jews did. They pledged their allegiance and invited him to Medina as their leader. Muhammad gladly accepted, naively convinced the Jews there would also accept him as a Prophet.

Among those who migrated to Medina with Muhammad from Mecca was a group of common highwaymen known as the Saalik (link to "The Rise of Islam" and "The Earlier Followers of Mohammed at Mecca"). They had only been in Medina a few months before Muhammad began sending them as well as other Muslims on raids against caravans passing through the region. The Quraysh responded to these raids by sending out their armies against the Muslim forces, but were soundly defeated. Emboldened by his victories, Muhammad turned against the Jews of Medina and quickly exiled and murdered all of them. He continued to claim that Allah was speaking directly through him with revelations that allowed him to do whatever he wanted, from raping the wives of his victims to declaring unending war against anyone who opposed him. His promise of a sensual paradise to all who died in his wars was a powerful motivation to his warriors, and by the time Muhammad died at the age of 62 his dream of becoming ruler of Arabia had become true.

Now imagine putting together the jigsaw puzzle (perhaps even one portraying the face of Muhammad!) from the perspective of a Muslim believer or a western non-Muslim apologist for Islam (present and all recent American Presidents included). You believe that a noble young man of Arabia, heartbroken over the idolatry and human rights abuses of his people, was called by God to be the final Prophet of the one true religion. This peaceful Prophet suffered oppression and persecution for 13 years until he was driven from his home to a distant city. There he received direction from God to lead battles of defense against the persecutors who were determined to destroy him and his nascent community. He was guided to conduct raids against the trade caravans to recover the goods his followers had lost in Mecca. He was commanded to remove the Jewish tribes of Medina who opposed his righteous message. He was ordered to marry numerous wives to fortify his political and social unions, as well as to exemplify mercy to widows and divorcees. He was led to order the extermination of all Christians and Jews from Arabia, and was given God's plan to bring the entire world under submission to Islam.

It's not long, however, before you are forcing pieces of the puzzle to try to make them fit. How does a holy Prophet of God in his mid-50s sexually conquer and ejaculate into an innocent 9 year old child? Push that piece into place if you can. How does he tire of her within a few months and begin taking other wives? Force that piece into the puzzle (the first was the beautiful Hafsah, at 20 twice Aysha's age) . Imagine young men on a camel caravan returning from a successful trip to Damascus where they traded olives and figs for the goods their families would live on for the next year. Suddenly they are terrified by a calvary of men with swords held high shouting Allahu Akbar as they swoop down on them to steal their goods, kill some of them, and sell the others for slaves or ransom. Justify that as you push that piece into place.

Listen to the Prophet describe the beautiful virgins waiting for his warriors in paradise to satisfy all their sexual desires if they die in battle, (Quran 52:20 and numerous similar verses) and then sending them off to war to do just that. Push that piece into place. Watch him sending his female prisoners of war across the desert to be sold as slaves for weapons and horses. How do you force that piece into the puzzle? See him and his warriors lining up the young Jewish boys of Medina and examining them for pubic hair to decide whether they would be beheaded with their fathers or exiled with their mothers. Can you push that piece into place (Book 38, 4390)? Listen to the Prophet joyfully telling one wife that Allah has commanded him to marry his own daughter-in-law. Push that into place if you can. Go with him to visit another wife and then hear him lie to get her out of the house so he can sleep with the beautiful Egyptian slave girl he has recently given her. Can you force that into place? Watch him torture a young Jewish man to death for refusing to reveal the location of his wealth that Muhammad wants to steal, and then accompany the Prophet as he "marries" his wife the same night. Can you really push that piece into place? Listen to the Prophet bless and congratulate the companion who drove his spear through the body of a young Jewish poetess as she lay sleeping with her nursing child because she had written poetry he did not like. Try to force that piece into place if you can.

Some jigsaw puzzles have 1000 pieces, and one could easily find that many examples of Muslims trying to force each one into place as they attempt to defend their Prophet. There is, however, good news. Thousands of men and women who were born Muslim are giving up the impossible task (see here and here). They might be now Buddhist, Christian, atheist, or simply following their own conscience, but they are free. They come from many backgounds, but they could probably all echo the sentiments of Aayan Hirsi Ali who was once asked by Manji Irshad why she had chosen to leave Islam rather than become a "Muslim reformer". Aayan's simple response was, "I couldn't live with the dichotomy for five minutes." Many others are saying the same.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Muslim Tolerance

The closest experience in Arabic to hearing a preacher preaching to the choir is listening to Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi explain to a Muslim audience that Islam is a religion of tolerance, as he did on a recent Shariah and Life program on al-Jazeera TV.

I've learned something interesting about the Quran. Just about every time a Muslim quotes a text that appears to be favorable to non-Muslims, it is actually in a Quranic context that teaches the opposite. Dr. al-Qaradawi began his remarks by quoting two of those verses. The first was from the sura of Hud (11:118), where Muhammad said Allah could have created all people Muslim had he wanted to. A similar verse is found in Yunus (10:99), where Allah reminded the Prophet that he could not force people to become Muslim, since Allah himself had not done that.

There are three things to keep in mind when hearing texts such as these. The first is that they were usually written in Mecca, before Muhammad became a military leader, when he was relying only on his preaching to attract converts (and during which time he was a spectacular failure). Muslim scholars have agreed throughout history that many if not all these "tolerant" verses were abrogated by the later and more militant sections of the Quran written in Medina.

The second thing to understand is that the verses in the immediate context of those quoted often teach the opposite of tolerance and mercy. The next verse in Hud reminds people that non-Muslims will be thrown into hell, and the verses before and after the quote from Yunus inform non-Muslims that they will be the final losers and subjects of Allah's wrath.

The third thing to realize is that Muhammad's primary teaching was that only Islam is accepted by Allah. Al-Imran, a chapter of the Quran written later in Medina, states this in 3:19, and the surrounding verses describe the torment non-Muslims will experience in the afterlife. Allah might allow others to be non-Muslims, and in some cases even keeps people from Islam, but they will end up suffering in hell.

Dr. al-Qaradawi then continued with his analysis of "Muslim tolerance". As is always the case, he spoke from the perspective of the majority rule, the comfortable position of those in power. Muslims usually see reality only from their perspective; he was not speaking from the standpoint of a Copt in Egypt, a Catholic in the southern Sudan, a Jew in Casablanca, or a Chaldean in Mosul. The closest analogy in American history would be to hear a slaveowner speak of the benefits of slavery for his slaves, rather than allowing them to tell their own stories.

According to al-Qaradawi, Muslims always dealt with the greatest mercy with those fortunate people to whom they brought the light of Islam. They never tried to obliterate these people or their beliefs (this is hard to understand, given the total disappearance of the Christians and Jews of Arabia, the Zorastrians of Iran, and the Buddhists of Afghanistan). The greatest example of Muslim tolerance, according to the Shaykh, is that Islam allows Christian and Jewish women to marry Muslim men. He ignores the facts that the children of these marriages must be raised Muslim, that Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men, and that in the case of divorce or death the non-Muslim spouse is not allowed to inherit from her Muslim husband. The simple truth is that marriages between non-Muslim women and their Muslim husbands do nothing but increase Muslim strength and influence.

The host of Shariah and Life then played a clip from Lebanese Christian philosophy professor Mushir Aoun. Aoun argued that "tolerance" is a misnomer in the Arab world, because all it means is that the majority allows the minority to have some rights, whether it is the religious minority of the Arab Christian or the political minority of the Arab secularist. Tolerance, according to Aoun, can never resolve the tensions that exist in the Arab and Islamic world, because tolerance begins with the understanding that the majority holds the truth and is willing to concede some of that truth for the benefit of the minority. The only solution is to build a foundation free from religious influence that gives absolute equality to all people.

As I listened to Aoun's argument, I realized that Dr. al-Qaradawi would have no understanding of what he was talking about. I was right; the Shaykh concluded the program by simply repeating what he had said before about Islam giving rights to non-Muslims living in Muslim societies. The concept of all people, whether Muslim, Christian, Jew, or atheist, living with absolute equal rights in a Muslim-majority society is something Yusuf al-Qaradawi cannot even begin to comprehend.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Muhammad's Lice

Reporting that a historical figure, such as George Washington or Martin Luther or Charlemagne, suffered from head lice would probably not get the reporter curses and death threats. That is not the case when the figure is the Prophet Muhammad and the reporter is Zakaria Boutros.

Muslims believe that Muhammad is the most virtuous person who has ever lived. His benefits include not only his wisdom and character, but also extend to his rinse water, exocrine glands, and even his excretory system. Numerous authentic Hadiths describe his followers almost fighting to gain access to and smear over themselves the water he used to wash himself (Vol 1, Book 4, Numbers 187, 188). Young Muslims are regularly taught that the prophet's sweat was more fragrant than musk and his perspiration shone like pearls. A detailed online article was written about the blessed urine of the Beloved Messenger after Syrian scholar Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi was criticized for saying at an international Islamic conference in London that he wished he could be the pure and medicinal urine that passed out of Muhammad's body.

In a recent Dialogue of Truth episode on al-Hayat TV, Abuna (Father) Boutros mentioned that Muhammad had lice. The initial reaction of Muslims was the same as it always is when something unfavorable is said about their Prophet: anger and denial (This is Phase One; here I discuss Phases 1-3). They accused Zakaria of lying and presenting false information without any evidence. Whether by design or accident (if by design, it was brilliant!) Zakaria dedicated his following week's program to respond to these critics by presenting the following historical evidence from Islamic sources that the Prophet did indeed have an itchy head (although these sources have existed for well over 1200 years, not all of them are easily available in languages other than Arabic which is one reason many historical facts about Muhammad are unknown to non-Arabic reading Muslims. English links will be provided below if available online).

1. The Sunan of Abu Dawud al-Sajistani (Book 19, Number 3074) as well as the Jamia al-Asul of Ibn Kathir and the Sunan al-Kubra of Imam al-Bayhaqi relate that a woman named Zainab was picking lice from the head of the Prophet (it is unclear from the texts if this is the daughter-of-law and cousin of Muhammad whom he married after she divorced his son Zayd, or another woman with the same name).

2. Abu al-Qasim al-Tabarani in his Al-Mujam al-Kabeer relays an account by Umm Salama that she was picking lice from the head of the prophet when a woman named Zainab came to see her. Umm Salama stopped picking the lice as he lifted her head to talk to Zainab, but Muhammad angrily told her not to stop; she could talk to Zainab and pick his lice at the same time.

3. Ibn Jawzi in Kashf al-Mushkil writes that the Prophet liked to take his afternoon nap in the house of Anas Ibn Malik's aunt, and she would pick the lice off his head.

4. Abu Umar Ibn Abdel Barr in his book Tamhid writes that Umm Haram relayed that the Prophet used to come to her house and fall asleep in her lap while she picked his lice.

5. Jalal al-Din al Sayuti in al-Durr al-Mansur writes that Akramah said that a woman named Khawlah came to the Prophet to complain about her husband while another woman was picking the lice from Muhammad's head. As Khawlah began speaking Muhammad lifted his head distractedly towards the sky, causing the woman to exclaim, "Khawlah, can't you stop talking? Don't you see what you are doing to the Prophet?"

After noting that it seemed as if everywhere the Prophet went he needed women to pick the lice from his hair, including but not limited to the five women listed above, Abuna Zakaria paused dramatically as he often does, to look directly into the camera and ask, "I would like the Ulama (Muslim scholars) of al-Azhar University to explain to us why the head of the Prophet was so filled with lice that everywhere he went he needed women to remove them. Your Quran describes Christians as najiseen (filthy), but whose head was covered with lice?"

When the co-host asked if the Arabic texts also gave the reasons for lice, Zakaria continued with the following sources:

In his Book of Animals, al Jahiz (go here for more on this fascinating Arab zoologist, grandson of an African slave) said that Abu-Qathifa asked his friends if they knew were lice came from. When they replied they did not, he told them that lice gathered when they passed gas and did not clean themselves. Later in the same book, al-Jahiz wrote that lice multipled from unclean perspiration, dirty clothing, and unwashed hair. In his Book of Medicine, Physician al-Razi wrote that lice increased when people rarely took baths. Shaykh al-Nasafi noted in his book Tilbat al-Talabah that "filth brings lice". Ibn Samoun wrote in Amali that lice grow in places that are not clean. Again characteristically, Zakaria asked, "Did the Prophet have so many lice because he was unclean? I don't want anyone to accuse me - I'm just asking the question."

The co-host next asked what Arabic sources said about someone who had lice. Zakaria quoted Abu Husayn Zakaria in The Encyclopedia of Language as saying, "Lice indicates vulgarity and oppression. The person with lice is vulgar and an oppressor."

As Zakaria continued with more Islamic sources that discussed lice resulting from poor hygiene and personal uncleanliness, I found myself thinking the same thing you might be thinking right now, "Isn't this pushing the envelope a little too far? What's the point on going on about Muhammad and his lice? Who cares anyhow?"

Then I realized I was thinking from the perspective of a non-Muslim living in the West. How would I think if I were an ordinary Christian Copt living in Egypt? What would it feel like to be a Coptic girl walking the streets of Cairo, her uncovered hair flowing over her shoulders, hearing men call her a whore as they stare with contempt at the cross she wears around her neck? What would it be like to be a young Christian boy walking to church on Christmas Eve with the neighborhood ruffains chasing and teasing him, calling him a kafir and an idolater? What is it like for a Christian teenager in a Muslim country to know that America elected its first African American President, but he could never be president of his country because he is a non-Muslim? What is it like for a Christian pediatrician working in the clinic of a Coptic neighborhood, knowing he will never fulfill his dream of being Head of Pediatrics at a major hospital or university just because he is not a Muslim? What is it like for Christians to realize they cannot even repair their churches without government permission while mosques are built all around them and they are forced to listen to Quranic verses describing them from loudspeakers as being filthy and untrustworthy?

If I lived in their shoes, a minority in a cultural majority that feels itself spiritually and morally superior to them in every way, I might understand a little better the emotions that drive Zakaria Boutros as he risks his life to talk about the lice of Muhammad.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Muhammad and the Bible

The view of Muslims towards the Taurah and the Injil (literally the Torah and the Gospel; this is the common Arabic expression for the Jewish and Christian Scriptures) was the subject of this week's "Shariah and Life" program on al-Jazeera TV with Umar Sulayman al-Ashqar, former Dean of Islamic Law at Jordan's al-Zarqa University. I would like to summarize what Dr. al-Ashqar said, and then add my comments.

Dr. al-Ashqar:
Muslims believe five progressive revelations were given by Allah to his Prophets. The first was given to Abraham and is now extinct. The Torah was given to Moses, the Zamur (Psalms) to David, the Injil to Jesus, and the Quran to Muhammad. Each of these revelations contained the same essential message that there is only one God and he alone is to be worshipped. The Shariah (religious system of law) given to each prophet was not the same, but was to be obeyed until the next prophet came. The Jews were to obey Moses until Jesus and Jesus was to be obeyed until Muhammad, who is to be obeyed by all people for all time.

The prophets are all linked, like the links of a chain, with each connected to those before and after him. Illustrating this, Muhammad said, "The family of prophets is like a man who marries several wives and has sons from each one. As the sons have different mothers but all have the same father, so we prophets have different Shariahs but the same message."

The revelations were all given without error, and each Prophet predicted the coming of Muhammad who is the final and greatest prophet. All Quranic expositors agree that in Quran 3:81 Allah informed all the prophets about Muhammad. This verse states that Allah told all the prophets to keep the wisdom he had given them until a Messenger would come to confirm this wisdom and whom they were to obey. Allah then asked the prophets if they agreed to this, and they replied they did. This pact is described in the verse as the Covenant of the Prophets.

There are two main differences between the earlier revelations and the Quran. Each of those was only given for the prophet and his people. The Torah was given to Moses for the Jews of his day, and the Injil was given to Jesus for his people. Only the Quran is given to all people for all time. Secondly, only the Quran has been preserved from corruption. God allowed the previous revelations to be corrupted because their followers were corrupt, and also because they were only temporary. Even if they would have remained uncorrupted, they would have been abrogated by the Quran because they contained much information that was superseded by the Quran. The Jews of Moses' day, for example, took communal baths (Book 003, Number 0669). This immoral practice would certainly have been abrogated by the higher moral standards of the Quran.

Not all of the Torah and Injil have been corrupted. The Ten Commandments, for example, are included in the Shariah of Islam, as are passages discussing mercy for orphans. Two main principles can be followed to determine what has been corrupted in the earlier revelations. First is that any account relayed differently in the original than in the Quran has been corrupted, because the Quranic rendition is accurate. As an example, Genesis begins by stating that Allah created the world in six days and rested on the seventh because he was tired. The Quran also states that Allah created the world in six days, but it is impossible that Allah who is all-powerful could become tired and need to rest. The addition in Genesis is a corruption added by the Jews sometime during their history. The teaching in the Injil that Jesus was crucified is also a corruption added later by his disciples, because the Quran states he was not crucified.

The second way to recognize corruption is to understand that Allah has protected all the prophets from committing major sins. It is impossible for a prophet to commit immorality, or to kill anyone without just cause after receiving his call to prophethood. The many stories in the Torah describing the lewdness of the Jewish prophets, including the drunkenness and nakedness of Noah, Lot offering his daughters for sex to the men of Sodom and then later sleeping with these same daughters, David committing adultery with Bathsheba, and Solomon's detailed description of lovemaking in the Song of Solomon, are all corruptions deliberately added to the text by the Jews.

Allah gave the Quran to protect the earlier revelations from further corruption, and to call their followers to Islam. Quran 2:40-42 commands the Children of Israel to obey their revelations that lead them to Islam, not to mix error with falsehood or deny what they know to be the truth about Muhammad. Much of surat al-'Imran, chapter 3 of the Quran and especially beginning with verse 64, speaks of the "Common Word" (3:64) that exists between Muslims, Christians, and Jews calling them all to Islam.

From the time he began to envision uniting the Arabs under one banner with him as leader, Muhammad recognized the importance of gaining the support of the Christians and the Jews. This support could only come if he could convince them that he himself was both a prophet and a king, similar to their great King David who was accepted as prophet before he was crowned as king. The hundreds of repititions of the Biblical stories in the Quran, strategically changed to make Muhammad similar to those prophets, were intended to persuade the Jews and Christians that he indeed was a prophet just like their heroes of old.

If the stories of Noah, Joseph, Abraham and Moses are retold in chapter after chapter of the Quran, why is there hardly any mention of the "real" Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the dozen or so others whose writings bear their names in the Old Testament? The answer is that Muhammad was an illiterate storyteller who lived in an illiterate society of fellow poets and storytellers. Arabic itself was only a semi-literate language. The all-important diacritical vowel markings and dots placed above and beneath Arabic letters to distinguish one from another were only added later when the Quran was codified by the Caliph Uthman. There were no Arabic books at the time of Muhammad, and Arabic writing for those who were literate did not extend much beyond lists of goods and materials carried on the camel caravans that traveled back and forth across the Arabian deserts.

Muhammad's society was one of oral tradition, poetry, and story telling. Compare the story of Joseph in Genesis, almost bland in its simplicity, with the intrigue of the Quranic rendition after the story was repeated around caravan campfires for thousands of years. Noah building a ship to save his family from destruction, Moses having a conversation with a burning bush, and Abraham about to sacrifice his son on top of a mountain were all adventures that could be repeated again and again, and all found their way into the Quran. But the Hebrew prophets Micah, Joel, and Amos? There is no adventure to be found in their books, and there is no mention of them in the Quran. It is doubtful that Muhammad even heard of them.

Muhammad's insistence that prophets were all protected from major sins is easy to understand, because he included himself. Beheading 800 Jewish males of Medina for not accepting him as a prophet as he had hoped was not murder, because prophets cannot commit murder. "Marrying" a beautiful female captive of war the day after killing her husband was not rape, because prophets cannot commit rape. Sleeping with his wife's lovely Christian slave was not adultery, because prophets cannot commit adultery.

For the last five months, Zakaria Boutros on al-Hayat TV has discussed hundreds of examples of Muhammad stealing material from the Bible, as well as many other sources, and inserting it into the Quran. The host of "Shariah and Life" is obviously aware of this because one of his questions to Dr. al-Ashqar was, "Christians say that the Quran itself has corrupted the Injil and the Torah. What is your response to that?

Dr. al-Ashqar answered five months of Boutros' evidence with a single sentence, "Our answer is that Allah revealed the Quran to Muhammad in perfection. Quran 15:9 says, "We have sent down the Quran, and surely we will guard it from corruption!"

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Discussion with Labib Mikhail

Dr. Labib Mikhail is a 90-year-old Egyptian Christian pastor and writer who has lived in the United States since he was forced from Egypt in 1973. Rashid of al-Hayat TV recently interviewed Labib at his home in Virginia. Of particular interest to me was Dr. Mikhail's description of "when the Brotherhood came to town" when he was a young pastor in the upper-Egyptian town of Malaoui ("upper Egypt" means the central part of the country, and I've had the opportunity to visit this town located about 200 miles south of Cairo). Following is that part of the interview:

Labib: Before I left Malaoui, the revolution of the Muslim Brotherhood took place there during Ramadan in 1945. Hasan al-Banna had begun the Muslim Brotherhood organization in Ismailiyah, and the movement spread until it reached Malaoui. For three evenings in a row, Brotherhood members took to the streets following their evening meal shouting "Down with Christianity and Away with the Cross!"

Rashid: And there were Christians present in the town?

Labib: The Christians lived there and were terrified, because those people shattered the windows of the churches with rocks and were threatening them everywhere.

Rashid: Why were they doing this?

Labib: They revolted because they hate Christianity. That is the creed of the Muslim Brotherhood. Christianity cannot coexist with Islam. Things calmed down after three days, and the leaders of the Christian churches all met together and sent a telegram to the central government in Cairo. We asked the government to help us, because we were in danger. The government sent an order to the mayor of Malaoui to arrest the demonstrators before events escalated to their using weapons against the Christians. The mayor asked us why we had sent the telegram and we explained the situation. He then arranged for a large meeting to take place at the Malaoui Center for Quranic Memorization, which was an important local organization, and for one of the pastors to address the meeting. The other pastors asked me to give the speech, even though at 25 I was the youngest. I went and spoke about the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus in Christianity to more than 400 people including the civilian and military leaders and other leaders of the Muslim community. I explained that the cross represents love, forgiveness, and mercy. After the speech my fellow pastors said to me, "They will certainly kill you for that speech you gave!" But during the next few days, Muslims stopped me in the street to thank me for it. That was my last experience in Malaoui, and soon after I left and moved to Cairo (end of interview).

In 1945 Egypt was ruled by a monarchy led by King Farouk. As a result of the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty, British troops were still in the country, and the United Kingdom played a major role in managing Egyptian affairs. It is easy to understand why a telegram sent from beleaguered Christians in the remote small town of Malaoui to the central government in Cairo could get an immediate and firm response.

Fast-forward 65 years to January 6, 2010, when six young Christians were gunned down as they left a Christmas Eve service in the town of Nag Hamadi. During those 65 years, not only Dr. Labib but tens of thousands of Egyptian Christians (to say nothing of 70,000 Jews) have been forced or have chosen to leave Egyptian discrimination and oppression for better lives elsewhere. Compare the response of the Egyptian government to the 2010 killings to the response in 1945. The situation is not getting better for Egyptian Christians under the current government, it is worse.

A few weeks ago during a demonstration held by Copts to protest the Nag Hamadi murders, an Egyptian woman asked why I, just about the only non-Egyptian present, was taking part. I told her I was concerned about the fate of minorities living in Muslim-majority countries. She then related that as a Christian child living in the upper Egyptian town of Minya she felt free to run and play anywhere in the city. Twenty years later her sister, who is still there, is terrified to have her 10 and 12 year old daughters walk unaccompanied down the street from their house.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tariq Ramadan: What I Believe

I suspect, although of course there is no way of knowing, that one of the reasons Tariq Ramadan published his small book "What I Believe" towards the end of 2009 was to get his visa refusal to the United States overturned. If so, he was spectacularly successful; on January 20, 2010, Secretary of State Clinton exercised her "exemption authority" to allow him to re-enter the country for the first time since his visa was revoked in 2004 only a few days before he was scheduled to begin teaching at the University of Notre Dame.

In his new book, Tariq says about the initial refusal, "After I waited for two years and initiated a lawsuit to find out the reason my visa had been revoked, the Department of Homeland Security claimed that I had given money to a Palestinian organization while I "should reasonably have known" that this organization "had links with the terrorist movement Hamas". Yet, not only is this organization not blacklisted - to this day - anywhere in Europe (where I live), but I gave about 700 euros to this organization between 1998 and 2002, a year before it was blacklisted in the United States. Thus I "should reasonably have known" a year before the Department of Homeland Security itself that it was going to be suspected! This is all the more ludicrous when one learns that such ridiculous and arbitrary decisions are retroactive! It should be added that 80 percent of the questions I had to answer during my two interviews at the U.S. embassy in Switzerland were about my positions over the war in Iraq and the Palestinian resistance. I repeated that such resistance is legitimate even though I disagree with the means used (killing innocents cannot be justified)."

As with everthing Tariq says and writes, his words need to be weighed carefully. Did he know the organization had links to Hamas? We don't know. Did he give money to this organization because he wanted it to go to Hamas? We don't know that either. Even if he answered "No" to both of these questions, would he be telling the truth? Again, we don't know.

If Tariq's rendition of the incident is true (there is always a second side to the story), it is possible that the revoking of his visa was an overreaction by the DHS during the tumultous years following 9/11, and that the lifting of the ban by Secretary Clinton was justified. To be honest, I don't have more of a problem with Tariq Ramadan teaching at an American university than I do with hundreds of other professors who are much like him. The only difference between him and them is that he is perhaps more charasmatic, more articulate, better known, and more polished in his presentation. My problem is with the propagandized view they present of Islam, and the fact that non-Muslim Americans are unwilling to study Islam objectively and seriously enough to know when scholars like Tariq are giving an dishonest analysis of Islam.

As I read Tariq's "What I Believe", as well as his "In The Footsteps of the Prophet - Lessons from the Life of Muhammad", it took me back 30 years when I was sitting in the classrooms of Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi and Dr. Sayyid Husayn Nasr. I am now more aware of things that escaped me then when I was a student at Temple University. I realize now that Tariq, as well as my Muslim professors then and many others, are born into a social and religious environment that sees Muhammad as not only the best of all Prophets but also the best person who has ever lived, the Quran as the best of all books, and Islam as the best of all religions.

As I read the life of Muhammad in the original sources, I see him as someone who cannot be defended as a Prophet of God. Tariq Ramadan and other writers read those same texts through an entirely different prism. Because they begin with the presupposition that their Prophet is exemplary in every way, they interpret the events in his life to fit the model they already hold of him. The result is that as I read their presentation of these events, I am astonished at what is to me duplicity and manipulation but to them is...well, I'm not sure. It's a question they need to answer.

"In the Footsteps of the Prophet" is a devotional biography of Muhammad. The only way to read it critically is with the book in one hand and the English translation of the same book Tariq used for his source material in the other, Guillaume's translation of the life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq. Actually there is an alternative to Guillaume's 800 page classic; here you can purchase a highly readable 160 summary of Guillaume's translation entitled Muhammad and the Unbelievers.

I noted here that Tariq's account of Abu Bakr's "buying slaves and setting them free in the name of Islam's principles stressing the equality of all human beings" is quite different from the source material where Abu Bakr merely exchanged his own non-Muslim slaves for the Muslim slaves of others.

"In the Footsteps of the Prophet" continues with strategic changes of vocabulary and omissions of details to present a better image of Muhammad than the much more realistic presentation of his original biography. In discussing Muhammad's "night journey" Tariq assumes that the Prophet was miraculously taken to "The Farthest Mosque" in Jerusalem, even though the Quran never mentions Jerusalem, there was no mosque there at the time, and there is historical evidence that Muhammad's night journey was in fact to a mosque located a few miles outside of Mecca.

While writing of Muhammad's marriage with Aishah, Tariq notes that she "officially became Muhammad's second wife" when she was six years old, "though the union would not be consummated for several years." "Several years" sounds a lot better than "three" - Aishah was a child of nine when Muhammad first had sex with her.

It is when recounting Muhammad's relationship with the three major Jewish tribes of Medina that Tariq is the most careful to present a rendering of events much different than they are given in the original sources. Following Muhamad's unexpected victory over his Quraysh enemies from Mecca at the battle of Badr, Tariq says Muhammad visited the first tribe, the Banu Qaynuqa who were the only tribe to actually live inside the city, "and invited them to ponder the Quraysh's defeat".

Ibn Ishaq describes the same visit a little differently. The actual text is, "The apostle assembled the Banu Qaynaqa in their market and addressed them as follows: O Jews, beware lest God bring upon you the vengeance that he brought upon Quraysh and become Muslims. You know that I am a prophet who has been sent - you will find that in your scriptures and God's covenant with you."

Ibn Ishaq adds that Quran 3:10-13, a passage claiming that the victory of the Muslims over the Quraysh was a sign for the Jews that their property and their families would not avail them from Allah's wrath and the Fires of Hell if they did not accept Muhammad as their Prophet, was given at this time.

Muhammad's banishment of this tribe, as well as the expulsion of the second and the beheading of the third, is again presented by Tariq in vocabulary much different than the original texts. Concerning the fate of the Beni Qaynuqa, Ibn Ishaq writes, "The apostle went out to the market of Medina and dug trenches in it. Then he sent for the Jewish males (from the age of puberty onward) and struck off their heads in those trenches as they were brought out ot him in batches. Among them was the enemy of Allah, Huyay (whose daughter Muhammad later "married") and Kab ibn Asad their chief. As they were being taken out in batches to the apostle, they asked Kab what he thought would be done with them. He replied, "Don't you understand? Don't you see that the summoner never stops and those who are taken away do not return. By Allah, it will be death!" This went on until the apostle made an end to them.

How does Tariq recount the same story? After describing how Muhammad's previous "mercy" to his Jewish captives in allowing them to merely be banished was sending a message of weakness to his opponents, Tariq notes that Muhammad's associate Ibn Muadh judged that the men "were to be executed while the women and children were to be considered as war captives. Muhammad accepted the sentence, which was carried out during the following days". There is no mention of hundreds beheaded, and certainly no acknowledgement that the fate of these three formerly prosperous Jewish tribes who had lived in Medina for hundreds of years was determined simply by their refusal to accept Muhammad for the prophet he claimed to be.

As I commented earlier, I don't really have a problem with Tariq Ramadan being allowed back into the United States and potentially being granted a professorship at one of our leading universities. His message will be the same as hundreds of other professors already there. My problem is with the rest of us - Americans who are unwilling to take the time to read, study, and recognize when Tariq and others like him are not quite giving us the straight bill of goods.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Engaging Muslims: Confrontation or Conciliation?

I've come to realize there are two opposing and possibly irreconcilable approaches taken by non-Muslims in their interaction with Muslims and discussion of Islam. For want of a better one-word summary, I will call the first confrontation and the second conciliation.

Let's begin with the second, which is by far more popular, better funded, socially acceptable, academically approved, and media favored than its awkward country cousin. The word conciliation has a nice ring to it. A conciliatory person is someone who is nice, non-offensive and not judgmental, the kind of person you like to work with or have as a next door neighbor. The word is closely related to reconciliation, a term rich with meaning in contexts as varied as Christian theology, American military policy in Iraq and Afghanistan, rebuilding Ruwanda, and marriage counseling.

As I see it, the basis of conciliation in a Muslim-non-Muslim context is to initially agree on a series of rules that are to be kept by both sides as they work towards a stated objective. This objective can be anything that is of interest to one or both sides: minarets in Switzerland, cartoons in Denmark, Bible verses on rifle scopes in Afghanistan, or burkas in France are just a few of many possibilities.

The rules are quite simple. Each side looks for values that are shared with the other, elements of agreement and commonality of belief. Each side externally (a very important word, since neither knows what the other is really thinking) expresses acceptance and understanding of the other's core elements of belief. Each side seeks to understand the others definitions of its religious terms (the non-Muslim tries to understand Allah's mercy as explained by the Muslim; the Muslim listens to the Christian's explanation of the Trinity). The Muslim states that Islam worships a God of mercy and justice, reads a Quran that is God's perfect revelation, and obeys a Prophet who values human rights and respect to women. If the other side is represented by a Christian (a Jew, atheist, or Hindu would obviously present different core beliefs), the Christian posits that Christians also believe in a God of mercy and justice (he might throw in love as well), have a divine revelation that includes the New and Old Testaments, and follow a Jesus who was God incarnate and died for the sins of the world.

Having reached agreement that each side has a God and a book and a hero, and that these have many shared characteristics, the discussion continues with a (big) emphasis on "listening to and understanding" the other. Almost by definition, this involves putting on kid gloves and not asking questions that are too challenging or (guess what!) confrontational. The Christian asks about verses in the Quran that advocate violence, and the Muslim responds with verses in the Old Testament that do the same. The Christian asks about Muhammad's raids, and the Muslim asks about the Popes' crusades. The Muslim asks why Americans hate Muslims, and the Christian asks why Pakistanis hate Americans. The Muslim asks why mosques in Switzerland can't have minarets, and the Christian asks why the international church recently built in Qatar doesn't have a steeple. Each side listens carefully to the other, decides they really like each other and should do this again, and all leave feeling good about themselves.

I could be wrong, but I have the distinct impression that most non-Muslims involved in this conciliatory approach learned most if not all they know about Islam from Muslim friends, teachers, and current writers. Very few of them are skilled in Arabic (it's a lot easier to get a PhD in Islamic studies from any American University than it is to really learn both the language of the Quran and Arabic as spoken today), and I suspect many of them have not critically (that is not devotionally; there is a big difference) read the translations of the Quran, the Hadith, and the Sirah that are available in English and other European languages. Given that the Bukhari Hadith alone contain over 700,000 words and Guillaume's translation of the original and most authentic Life of Muhammad by Ibn Ishaq is 800 often tedious pages, it is understandable although not excusable that many "Islamic experts" prefer lighter fare.

I probably have little in common with Dr. John Esposito at Georgetown University who is perhaps the leader of the conciliatory approach to Islam and is considered by his admirers to be America's leading non-Muslim scholar of Islam. He's world famous, has written dozens of books, and I - well, I started a blog. We do share one thing, however; we both studied Islam at Temple University in Philadelphia with the late Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi. I was there several years after Dr. Esposito and had the opportunity to study as well with Dr. Sayiid Husayn Nasr who was forced to leave Iran as a refugee after the Islamic Revolution. Both were dynamic, charasmatic teachers and I looked forward to each class. One was a fundamental Sunni Palestinian, the other a Sufi Iranian Shiite, and I still look back at those days as a wonderful opportunity to learn Islam from such different perspectives.

But I realize something now that I didn't know then. I was deceived, whether deliberately or not I can't say. I was given one side of Islam. I hesitate to say that either Dr. al-Faruqi or Dr. Nasr were propagandists, although an essential element of propaganda is giving only the side of an argument that advances your case and ignoring the rest. Muhammad's problems with the Jews of Medina? It was their fault for reneging on the concordia he made with them. That a large, prosperous community who had lived there for centuries was beheaded (literally; you can read about it here) or expelled within a few years of his arrival simply for not believing he was the Prophet he claimed to be did not even enter into the equation. We somehow believed the Copts of Egypt, whose church had thrived for 600 years, welcomed the Muslim invaders who arrived after their Roman Vicegerent gave the wrong answer to Muhammad's invitation to accept Islam or else. We didn't learn their tongues were cut out for continuing to speak Coptic. We never learned that the only reason Persians still speak Farsi and Turks speak Turkish, rather than have their languages disappear as did those of North Africa, is that they were strong enough to fight off Arabization even though they could not defeat Islamization. And we certainly never learned about Asma bint Marwan and Umm Qirfa.

European Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan was recently personally granted a visa to the United States by Secretary of State Clinton after his visa had been denied for many years. If he chooses to reside in America, he will certainly be offered a chair at a leading American university and become involved in the conciliatory movement. How many people will be knowledgeable enough to listen to his lectures and read his books and separate what is true from what is deceptive? I wrote here about doing that with one of his books, "The Footsteps of the Prophet".

Now for the other side. Who are those involved in the confrontational approach to Islam, and what is their approach? First of all, many of them are self-taught. They've learned Islam by spending years pouring over texts written over 1000 years ago, or living for years as Muslims in Islamic countries. Many don't have PhD's in Islam, or in anything at all for that matter, and as a result are denigated by those who do as not being "real scholars". They understand that even though there are many kinds of Muslims, from non-religious to radical, there is only one Islam; that of Muhammad. They've come to the conclusion that Islam, as envisioned and practiced by Muhammad, is incompatible with the values of the 21st century. And they are not afraid to ask hard questions about Muhammad and his morality, the Quran and its validity, and Allah and his credibility.

Some of them who are best-known have price tags on their heads and travel with bodyguards. A former al-Azhar University Professor who has changed his name to Mark Gabriel cannot return to his family in Egypt. Aayan Hirsi Ali lives under death threats. Noni Darwish has speaking engagements cancelled at American Universities because Muslims complain. Robert Spencer does not publish information about his family or residence. Geert Wilders is being tried for hate speech in Holland.

The interesting thing is that as I listen to some of these, I get the distinct impression they are the ones who really care about Muslims. I join millions of Arabs each week to listen to ex-Muslim Rashid's program Daring Question on the Arabic al-Hayat TV channel. It's impossible to misunderstand his love for his people. Wafa Sultan was his guest for three 90-minute interviews, and she also clearly communicates her care for Muslims. The fact that he is now a Christian and she follows no religion is irrelevant. Zakariya Boutros, a Coptic Priest originally from Cairo, begins each of his weekly programs that are also watched by millions of Muslims, with a prayer for God's blessing upon his audience.

My conviction is that change in the Muslim world towards greater freedom, including the freedom for every Muslim to believe whatever they want (including the freedom to leave Islam), marry whomever they want (including Muslim women allowed to marry non-Muslim men), and live their lives however they want (including not having to hide being gay or lesbian), and for each non-Muslim living in a Muslim country to be accepted as a citizen with all the rights and privileges of the Muslim majority, will not take place without a great struggle. I also believe that the "confrontationalists", not the "conciliatorians", will be most influential in bringing about that change.

One of the most courageous men I know is Anglican Bishop Andrew White, pastor of St. George's Church in Baghdad. I often heard him preach during my two years in Iraq. He has dedicated his life to his Iraqi congregation and to trying to bring reconciliation between Iraq's Sunnis and Shia. I would describe him as a member of the conciliation camp, and it was as I read his book Iraq: Searching for Hope that I realized I was not. At one point in the book he wrote that when meeting with Shia and Sunni leaders he urges them to pursue reconciliation "in the spirit of the Prophet". The phrase broke my heart, as I realized I saw "the spirit of the Prophet" as the cause of the problem, not the solution.

I wish Bishop White the best of success as he continues his efforts to bring Shia and Sunnis together, although the suicide bombings killing dozens of people on both sides even in the last few weeks indicate the opposite is taking place. But I need to ask a question. Is it Bishop White urging Muslims to come together "in the spirit of the Prophet" that will really bring change, or is it the voice of Rashid on al-Hayat TV challenging them to leave Muhammad behind?

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Taking the Quran Out of Context

One does not read very far in the comments section beneath any online blog or article asking hard questions about the Quran before finding the accusation by an offended Muslim that the author took texts "out of context". This is usually accompanied by additional claims that the author is ignorant, Islamophobic, or hates Muslims. Very rarely does the person making the comment try to provide the "correct context" of the passage in question.

There is a reason for this. If you ask any Biblically literate Christian for the context of a book of the New Testament, Paul's letter to the Galatians for example, they can explain that in the first century after Christ the Apostle Paul started several churches in the area of modern Turkey known as Galatia. Soon after Paul left the area, Jewish officials visited the new churches and insisted its members continue the Jewish practice of circumcision, follow Jewish dietary laws, and obey other elements of traditional Judaism. Paul strongly believed the new Christians were to be free from these restrictions, as he saw them, and wrote his letter giving his opinion and advice about the issue.

Now ask a Jewish friend about the context of, say, the Book of Ruth in the Jewish Scriptures. She can explain that about 1000 BCE a Jewish family living in Israel was forced to leave their home during a famine and moved to an area called Moab. The father died and his two sons married local women. Later the two sons also died, and their mother decided to return to her homeland. One of her daughters-in-law, Ruth, chose to return with her and in a remarkable turn of events (you'll have to read them for yourself if you don't know the story!) married a prosperous farmer named Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David.

Next ask your friend for the context of the only other book of the Scriptures named after a woman, The Book of Esther. She will tell you that about 600 years later, around 400 BCE, many of the Israelites were taken captive to Persia. As the result of another amazing story (again, you'll need to read it if it's unfamiliar to you), the Persian Emperor married one of the captives, a beautiful Jewess named Esther. Queen Esther eventually saved her people from the plans of an evil enemy who plotted their destruction.

Now ask a Muslim friend for the context of a Surah of the Quran; the Cow (al-Baqarah), for example, or the Ant (an-Naml). How do either of them compare with the Spider (al-Ankabut)? And why are all of them named after animals? Don't be surprised when the Muslim is unable to answer, because basically the only context to these and the other 111 Suras is whether they were written in Mecca or in Medina, and whether they were written before or after this or that battle.

The story gets even more intriguing. The reality is that it is Muslims, not Muslim critics, who often take both their and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures out of context. If in doubt, read on.

Walk into any Islamic bookstore in Cairo or Riyadh, as I have, and you will be amazed at some of the titles on the shelves. "The Bible Proves that Jesus Was Never Crucified on the Cross". "Jesus and the Bible Prophesy the Coming of Prophet Muhammad". "Jesus Claimed That He Was Not God". Read those books if you want to see Biblical passages taken out of context!

Now read the Quran and compare the hundreds of passages Muhammad stole from their original renderings in the Jewish Scriptures. These passages were not merely plagiarized, that is, copied and pasted from the Bible into the Quran, they were strategically altered to suit the purposes of Islam's Prophet. Whether Noah, Abraham, Joseph or Moses, whose stories Muhammad repeated dozens of times, the theme was always the same. The Hebrew Prophets faced severe opposition from their own people as they declared the Unity of God. In the end, God always vindicated his Prophets and the disbelieving people were punished. Muhammad never failed to explain that he was exactly the same, and his people would also be punished if they did not accept him as their Prophet. Everyone of these passages was taken out of its original context and inserted into the Quran by Muhammad for his own purposes.

It is, however, in their attempts to make the Quran attractive to Western readers that modern Muslim apologists show the most boldness in taking their own Scriptures out of context. They essentially do this in two ways. First is to ignore the principle, little understood in the West but very important in Islamic theology, of abrogation. The second is to bypass or deny the very historical events that provide the proper context for the passages in question.

Abrogation simply means that earlier texts in the Quran are cancelled out by later revelations. This is not a minor doctrine, but the key to understanding the book. Quran 2:106 is one of several ayahs in which Allah explains that he himself cancels out verses and brings better ones. This developed into a major science in Quranic tafsir, in which different scholars might argue about which precise verses were abrogated, but all agree on the principle. The foundational scholar of this science, Abu Hassan an-Naisaburi who lived 1000 years ago, argued that all the "peaceful verses" of the Quran, those so often quoted by Western Muslims, were cancelled out by the single verse in at-Taubah, "fight the infidels and kill them wherever you find them unless they accept Islam" (9:5).

Other Muslim scholars argue that the immediate historical context of verses must be taken into consideration when trying to interpret them. The reality, however, is that this often results in the verse being much less positive than it appears in the initial text. Muslims love to quote the verse, "There is no compulsion in religion." If ever there was a Quranic text urging freedom of religion, that's the one! The context of the verse is given by Quranic expositor Ibn-Kathir. There was a high infant mortality rate among the Arab tribal women of Medina, and some women whose infants had all died determined that if they had a child who lived, they would give that child to be raised by the Jews who lived there. Considering that the Jews were both literate and observant of the hygienic and dietary laws of their faith, it stands to reason that the children of the Arab women would have a better chance of surviving with the Jewish families. When Muhammad expelled the Jewish tribes from Medina, some of the non-Muslim women were naturally unwilling to abandon or bid farewell forever to their children. Muhammad's response was the children were to go with the Jews, because "there is no compulsion in religion"; the children could not be forced to return and adopt Islam. Instead of this being a verse of religious freedom, it actually resulted in the breakup of families and the separation of children from their natural mothers.

Years ago at Temple University I studied Islam with the late scholar Dr. Ismail al-Faruqi. He was explaining in class one day that Muhammad was a superior prophet to Jesus because Muhammad was sent as a mercy to all mankind (Quran 21:108) while Jesus came only to the Jews. To prove his point, he pointed out that Jesus spoke rudely to a Greek woman who asked him to heal her daughter and even compared her to a dog (to see if you reach the same conclusion, read Mark 7:24-30).

I didn't know much about Islam at the time, but I knew that sometimes even the experts need to be challenged. At the end of the class I walked to the front and said, "Dr. al-Faruqi, you didn't tell us the end of the story." I still remember the look that came across his face. To his credit, he simply replied, "You're right."

The end of the story, of course, is that Jesus granted the woman her request and her daughter was healed. I imagine they both were the happiest women in the country that evening. And the results of the mercy of Muhammad? Within a few short years of his death every single Christian and Jew in Arabia, members of communities that had prospered for hundreds of years, was either expelled or killed.

So Muhammad is a mercy to us all, and Jesus considers all non-Jews to be dogs. Now that's taking Scripture out of context!