SHOULD MUSLIMS FOLLOW THE QUR’AN
EPISODICALLY OR CHRONOLOGICALLY?
AND HOW DOES THIS IMPACTS RELATIONS WITH JEWS AND CHRISTIANS
Saleem Ahmed, Ph.D
Many more Qur’anic verses promote violence than peace. Thus, non-Muslims cannot be faulted for concluding that Islam is not a religion of peace, especially when the actions of some extremist Muslims continue to confirm this perception. Starting as a spiritual movement when Muhammad lived in Mecca, Islam evolved into a fighting force after Muhammad moved to Medina and confronted enemies on all sides. It was only in his 10th year in Medina, after many tribes had accepted his message, that the Qur’an adopted a peaceful posture towards non-Muslims and declared that all its earlier messages (of war) were being superseded by its new message of peace. However, since extremist continue to follow superseded Qur’anic verses, an uphill – but doable and necessary — task lies ahead for the Muslim majority.
Although the Muslim holy book Qur’an touts Islam as “religion of peace”, many more Qur’anic verses promote violence. Revealed to Muhammad in Medina during 622-631 CE, these violence-inciting verses were in marked contrast to the revelations on patience and spirituality he had received earlier (610-622) in Mecca. But, with only a handful of followers then, all that Muhammad could do in the face of mounting persecution was to ask his followers to remain steadfast and patient, or to seek refuge, first in Abyssinia, and then in Medina. Later, with new converts joining him in Medina, he gathered numbers large enough to have a critical mass of followers, to enable him to retaliate against not only those who persecuted Muslims, but also against those conspiring to subvert his message. Thus, Muhammad was engaged in 100 military encounters in eight years, ranging from small raids by 10-12 individuals to large-scale battles involving 10,000+ warriors. In 90+ of these, Muslims were reportedly the aggressors. The battle cry, “convert or die”, mesmerized his followers to action, with the reward of plunder and loot sweetening the pot in this life, and the anticipated reward of vestal virgins in Paradise making it an unassailable bargain in the Hereafter.
In contemporary life, while a perplexed and silent Muslim majority opts for the Qur’an’s peace-inspiring message and bemoans helplessly the current violence, a mesmerized Muslim minority looks forward to being rewarded with these “heavenly maidens” for killing “infidels” – as they did recently in Cairo on Palm Sunday. A grim reminder indeed of zealotry’s powerful crushing tentacles!
The challenge confronting Muslims
An unfortunate consequence of the illiterate Muhammad (570-632 CE) dying without leaving a consolidated written record of the Divine guidance he had received over the 23 years of his ministry, the scant information in the Quran and hadith (Muhammad’s purported sayings and actions) on the context and chronology of revelations, empowers Muslim hawks and doves to follow opposite signals with equal conviction. Thus, for example, while doves follow Qur’anic verses 5.3 and 5.5 permitting Muslims to eat and intermarry with Jews, Christians, and other “People of the Book” (those believing in the Transcendental Being and leading a righteous life), hawks follow verse 5.51 commanding Muslims to not trust Jews and Christians. And, although verse 2.106 clarifies that later guidance superseded earlier guidance, trying to identify the “later guidance” on many issues remains elusive as the Qur’an’s 6,200+ verses are not arranged chronologically. Thus, by their sheer numbers, reactive verses win hands down.
The Qur’an’s turn-around
But then, the Qur’an did a sudden about-turn a month before Muhammad died: it asked him to establish fraternal relations with “Jews, Christians, and other ‘People of the Book’” (verses 5.3 and 5.5). What brought about this significant change, is not clear. Apparently, the Qur’an’s earlier objection that “Jews calling Uzair (Ezra) ‘son of God’ and Christians calling Jesus ‘son of God’” (verse 9.30) was not considered by the same book at this juncture as objection strong enough to withhold peace; neither was the earlier injunction to “not trust Jews and Christians” (verse 5.51). Muhammad died 2-4 weeks after receiving this last message. I suggest this was probably preceded a little earlier by verse 2.106 alerting Muhammad that “later guidance supersedes earlier guidance” to clarify that that violence-inciting verses he had been receiving during the previous 8-10 years were now going to be superseded by a new – and peace-inspiring – revelation. Indeed, it was only through the last guidance to Muhammad that the Qur’an gave Muhammad’s religion the title,Islam (peace). Complying with this revised guidance, Muhammad, while welcoming those Jews and Christians who converted to Islam, also assured those who did not covert, that they would not be discriminated against.
The road ahead
Muslims can follow the Qur’an episodically or chronologically. The former is a no-brainer: they simply select the verse they like – whether it inspires them, incites them, mesmerizes them, or puts them in a trance – and act out its command, to kill, convert, cajole, or converse. But to follow the Qur’an chronologically is more difficult. It requires a conviction that Islam’s final message – verses 5.3 and 5.5 – were the last to be revealed and that these superseded all earlier – and far more numerous – messages of war.
We can also, by deduction, conclude that, not only did peace supersede war, but also compassion superseded violence, inclusion superseded exclusion, forgiveness superseded punishment, and modest dressing by men and women superseded veiling by women. A whole new Islam, therefore, emerged in that last month of Muhammad’s life. It not only reinforced the message of spiritual Islam that Muhammad had received during his first 13 years in Mecca, it also propelled Islam to become a champion of interfaith harmony.
So, should Muslims follow the Qur’an episodically or chronologically? Through this ijtihad (introspection and mutual sharing), we hope to enrich our collective knowledge on this vital issue and nurture the final, integral Islam. Who knows? We might even succeed in encouraging some extremist Muslims to “cross over the bridge”. God willing, this ijtihad (introspection) will help strengthen Muslim relations with Jews and Christians and help usher global peace.
 This is an expanded version of the article which was posted on the Muslim Council of America website on May 1, 2017.
 President, Pacific Institute of Islamic Studies and the All Believers Network. Both are Honolulu-based non-profit organizations.