Say: O People of the Scripture! Come to a common word between us and you: that we shall worship none but God, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside God. And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him). (Aal ‘Imran 3:64)
Nice message, isn't it? Verse 3:64 is perhaps the most prominent of many verses from the Quran quoted in an open letter this week, entitled "A Common Word Between Us and You" from 138 Muslim scholars to the Pope and other Christian leaders around the world. It has been posted on a website and in newspapers throughout the world. Ostensibly, the letter's message was the necessity of peace between two of the world's greatest religions – a noble goal. The end of the letter reads:
Finding common ground between Muslims and Christians is not simply a matter for polite ecumenical dialogue between selected religious leaders. Christianity and Islam are the largest and second largest religions in the world and in history….If Muslims and Christians are not at peace, the world cannot be at peace.
So let our differences not cause hatred and strife between us. Let us vie with each other only in righteousness and good works. Let us respect each other, be fair, just and kind to another and live in sincere peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.
It would be difficult for the Pope to disagree with this profound and even divine message. But the only problem is that peace and coexistence are not the true goals of this letter. And the real target audience isn't the Pope.
Take a closer look at the 64th verse of the 3rd Sura (Chapter) of the Quran quoted above and twice in the letter, including in the title itself; especially the last sentence of it:
And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are they who have surrendered (unto Him).
The word Muslim literally means "one who submits to God." Do we see that fit in anywhere? It would be more accurate to present that sentence this way:
And if they turn away, then say: Bear witness that we are Muslims.
In fact, that's how it's written by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, whose English translation of the Quran is considered the most popular and widely read.
If then they turn back, say: Bear witness that we (at least) are Muslims (bowing to Allah's will).
That modification of the word Muslim versus its English translation – those who have surrendered unto him – reveals that claims to monotheism may be exclusive to Muslims. And it doesn't stop there. Take a look at the verses that follow 3:64. Pay particular attention to verses 67, 69, 70, and 71:
3:65: Ye, People of the Book! Why dispute ye about Abraham, when the Law and the Gospel were not revealed till after him? Have ye no understanding?
3:66: Ah! Yes are those who fell to disputing (even) in matters of which ye had some knowledge! But why dispute ye in matters of which ye have no knowledge? It is Allah who knows and ye who know not!
3:67: Abraham was not a Jew, nor yet a Christian, but he was true in Faith, and bowed his will to Allah's (which is Islam) and he joined not gods with Allah.
3:68: Without doubt, among men, the nearest of kin to Abraham are those who follow him, as are also this Apostle and those who believe: And Allah is the Protector of those who have Faith.
3:69: It is the wish of a section of the People of the Book to lead you astray. But they shall lead astray (not you), but themselves, and they do not perceive.
3:70: Ye People of the Book! Why reject ye the Signs of Allah, of which ye are (yourselves) witnesses?
3:71: Ye People of the Book! Why do you clothe Truth with falsehood, and conceal the Truth while ye have knowledge?
In full context, it is clear that this section of the Quran, including 3:64, is a condemnation of Christianity and Judaism and a call for conversion. Why would this verse be included in a call for peace and understanding between Islam and Christianity? The authors and signatories of this letter are among the most learned scholars of Islam in the world. They know the context of 3:64 and its true message, which is exactly why they included it. This letter is not a call for peace. It is a call for conversion.
This is in accordance with various commentaries on the Quran, including the influential and prolific Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi. Maududi founded the Pakistani Islamic group Jamaat e-Islami in 1941. He wrote of this chapter:
The message has been extended to the Jews and the Christians in continuation of the invitation in Al-Baqarah, in which they have been admonished for their erroneous beliefs and evil morals and advised to accept, as a remedy, the Truth of the Quran. They have been told here that Muhammad (Allah's peace be, upon him) taught the same right way of life that had been preached by their own Prophets; that it alone was the Right Way, the way of Allah; hence any deviation from it will be wrong even according to their own Scriptures.
Specifically regarding these verses and surrounding verses, he also adds, "This discourse is particularly addressed to the Christians and invites them to accept Islam." And "In these verses the people of the Book, the Jews, have been invited to give up their sinister ways and accept the divine Guidance" (Maududi, "Introduction to Al-i-Imran," The Meaning of the Quran).
This fits with the traditional Islamic view that Christianity and Judaism are not religions of true monotheism because, according to the Prophet Muhammad, they worship those other than God, in conflict with the call in 3:64. According to a hadith on the authority of Adi bin Hatim from the Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Muhammad is recorded as once saying of Christians and Jews:
Whatever their priests and rabbis call permissible, they accept as permissible; whatever they declare as forbidden, they consider as forbidden, and thus they worship them.
Along those lines, the Quran states:
9:30: The Jews call ‘Uzair a son of Allah, and the Christians call Christ the Son of Allah.; That is a saying from their mouths; (in this) they but imitate what the Unbelievers of old used to say. Allah's curse be on them: how they are deluded away from Truth!
9:31: They take their priests and their anchorites to be their lords in derogation of Allah, and (they take as their Lord) Christ the son of Mary; Yet they were commanded to worship but One Allah: There is no god but He. Praise and glory to Him: (Far is He) from having the parents they associate (with Him).
The Pope and the other recipients of this letter are well-versed enough in evangelical efforts to see it for what it really is, but they are not the targets of this letter. It is an open letter for a reason. It is meant to influence the Christian public around the world. This view is supported by the fact that, according to the London Times, it "will be rolled out around the world in a series of press conferences." The websites of major Islamist organizations in Europe and the United States have rolled out statements praising the virtues of the letter.
3:64 is not the only verse from the Quran that is dishonestly presented in the letter. Many verses prescribing peace were included, despite the fact that they are often abrogated by verses prescribing conflict and intolerance.
Some of these Muslim scholars may have indeed had good intentions in writing and signing this letter, but they understood the context of this verse and – more importantly – they understood that the recipients of this letter would not.
This is not the first time that some Muslim leaders have misrepresented the Quran to the West. Since 9/11 we have often been told that Quran says that if anyone killed one person, it would be as if he killed all of humanity. But that's not quite what 5:35 of the Quran says. It is qualified by saying that this is so, "unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land." The verse immediately following that says that "those who wage war against Allah and His Apostle, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land" must be punished with "execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land."
The messages of the abridged verse offered by some Muslim leaders and the full verse are at odds. One unconditionally values life, and the other values life except when it comes to mischief. Then the following verse demands inhumane and gory punishment to answer this mischief.
Common ground is a noble idea. Why can't it be pursued honestly?