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A Look Inside the Koran and the Bible (Part 2)

Father Sidney Griffith on the Koran's Treatment of Other Religions

WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 28, 2004 (Zenit) - The Koran proclaims that Jews and Christians are "People of the Book," but the sacred text sometimes expresses ambivalence about the two faiths, according to a Semitic-languages scholar.

Father Sidney Griffith, a professor of Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature at the Catholic University of America, shared with us what the Koran says about Jesus, Mary and the followers of Abraham, and how it provides points of convergence for interreligious dialogue.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Tuesday.

Q: The Koran mentions Jesus and Mary. Could you explain the context?

Father Griffith: The Koran mentions both Jesus and Mary a number of times, always in terms of great personal esteem.

Most importantly, in Chapter 4, Verse 171, the Koran presents Jesus, the son of Mary, as the Messiah, as God's messenger; Jesus is seen as a word of God which he cast into Mary, and a spirit from him, who is nevertheless, in God's sight like Adam, a creature -- according to Chapter 3, Verse 59.

At one point the Koran says God asked Jesus, "Did you tell people to take you and your mother as two gods?" -- a question that Jesus answered in Chapter 5, Verse 116, saying, "It is not given me to say what is untrue." Clearly, in the Islamic view, both Jesus and Mary are human beings.

The Koran regularly follows the mention of Jesus, the Messiah, with the epithet "son of Mary," as if explicitly to deny the Christian belief that Jesus is the "Son of God."

At one point the Koran denies that Jesus' adversaries killed or crucified him, saying in Chapter 5, Verse 157, "it only seemed so to them," a statement that most Muslims take to mean that Jesus did not in fact die on the cross.

On the basis of a number of other passages in the Koran, most Muslims believe that there will be a role for Jesus on the final day of reckoning. Many Sufis, Muslim mystics, revere Jesus as a model holy man.

Q: For a non-Muslim, the Koran seems to contain a number of contradictions. How would a Muslim see it?

Father Griffith: The contradictions that non-Muslims claim to see in the Koran involve a number of perspectives, both internal and external to the text.

Internally, for example, non-Muslims often point to perceived inconsistencies or reversals of thought or practice between the Meccan and Medinan periods of Mohammed's prophetic career. Externally, they might cite differences between narratives concerned with biblical characters as they appear in the Koran and in the Torah or the Gospel.

Muslims would not consider these differences to be contradictions. Rather, they would think of the non-Muslim's perception of contradiction to be due to a failure in hermeneutics, that is, a failure to read and to understand verses in the Koran on their own terms, and within the interpretive frameworks of the Islamic communities.

Q: What elements in the Koran could open the way for interreligious dialogue? What elements could limit such dialogue?

Father Griffith: In many ways the Koran encourages dialogue with Jews and Christians -- "People of the Book" as the Koran calls them some 54 times. For example, Chapter 10, Verse 94, says, "If you are in doubt about what We have sent down to you, ask those who were reading scripture before you."

Chapter 29, verse 46, proclaims, "Do not dispute with the People of the Book save in the fairest way; except for those of them who are evildoers. And say: 'We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and to Him we are submissive.'"

But there is some ambivalence. It is also the case that the Koran provides a powerful critique of the religious beliefs and practices of Christians and Jews. It characterizes their beliefs as going beyond the bounds of religious propriety -- for example, in Chapter 4, Verse 171, and Chapter 5, Verse 77) and their customary behavior as morally objectionable.

On the one hand the Koran says in Chapter 5, Verse 82, that Christians are "the closest in affection to the believers."

On the other hand, in Chapter 5, Verse 51, it says, "Taken them not as friends." Another verse -- Chapter 2, Verse 120, says, "Neither the Jews nor the Christians will be pleased with you until you follow their religion."

And within the Islamic polity, as envisioned by the Koran in Chapter 9, Verse 29, the People of the Book are required to pay a special poll tax and to adopt a low social profile in return for the protection, "dhimmah," of the Muslims, hence the adjective "dhimmi," or "one under protection," as applied to Christians or Jews.

Nevertheless, the Koran provides numerous points of convergence for interreligous dialogue. One of the most important of them is the significance of the faith of the biblical patriarch Abraham.

While the Koran insists in Chapter 3, Verse 67, that he was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a submissive monotheist, it also speaks of the "religion of Abraham" in terms very close to those used by Jews and Christians. The Koran speaks of Abraham as God's friend; so do Isaiah 41:8 and James 2:23.

Q: What do you think attracts Western converts to Islam?

Father Griffith: There are many factors involved in the attraction of Islam to religious seekers in the West.

Positively, Islam is a compelling, reasonable, uncompromising monotheism with a biblical flavor. It provides a compelling moral code, which many moderns and postmoderns view as both realistic and honorable. The Koran's prophetology provides a congenial estimation of what it perceives to be the positive factors in earlier revelations, along with reasons why earlier peoples failed to heed them faithfully.

Islamic history and tradition in various times and places have produced societies with many admirable intellectual and scientific accomplishments. Many Westerners find Islamic mysticism attractive; others see in Islam an effective religious answer to what they view as the ills of the modern Western world.

On the negative side, many Christians who are attracted to Islam lack an adequate understanding of the history and teachings of the Church, and are easily deceived by the many hostile attacks on the Church's doctrines, practices and historical record.

They are unaware of the Church's answers to Islam's critique of Christianity. The shortcomings and moral failures they perceive in Christian communities sometimes dismay them. Often they are unaware of comparable problems in other communities of faith, including the Muslims.

The prevalent materialism and secularism of Western society has in many instances convinced potential converts to Islam that only in Islam can they find an effective antidote to it.

Sometimes potential converts to Islam are overcome in their own efforts faithfully to live the Christian life and, failing to find effective pastoral care from fellow Christians, or failing to follow it, they receive moral guidance and support from pious, observant Muslims.


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