Verses 64-120 of the Qur’an’s Sura 3, “The Family of Imran,” continue to charge that Jews and Christians reject Islam only out of perversity, and call them back to the true faith of Abraham. V. 64 caps the Qur’an’s presentation of Christianity in verses 33-63 by calling the People of the Book to accept Islam. This is presented as an invitation to an “agreement”: “that we shall worship none but Allah, and that we shall ascribe no partner unto Him, and that none of us shall take others for lords beside Allah.” This would (in the Islamic view) require Christians to reject Christ’s divinity, as well as the Jews’ and Christians’ practice of deifying their “rabbis and monks,” which the Tafsir al-Jalalayn mentions in connection with this verse. That charge comes from Qur’an 9:31.
In verses 65-68 Allah rebukes the Jews and Christians for arguing over something about which they “have no knowledge” (v. 66): the religion of Abraham. The Patriarch couldn’t have been a Jew or a Christian, says v. 65, because “the Torah and the Gospel were not revealed till after him.” In reality, he was a Muslim hanif (حَنِيفًا مُّسْلِمً) (v. 67) – as the Tafsir al-Jalalayn explains: “Abraham in truth was not a Jew, neither a Christian, but he was a Muslim, professing the Oneness of God, and a hanīf, who inclined away from all other religions towards the upright one; and he was never of the idolaters.” What’s more, Muhammad and the Muslims are “the nearest of kin to Abraham,” as Ibn Kathir says: “This Ayah [verse] means, ‘The people who have the most right to be followers of Ibrahim are those who followed his religion and this Prophet, Muhammad, and his Companions…”
Of course, if Abraham was a Muslim, Judaism is completely illegitimate. The Jews (and Christians) are simply renegades from the true faith of their own prophets – which was Islam. And that is the view of Judaism and Christianity that many Muslims have today. V. 69 emphasizes the perversity of some of the Jews and Christians: they wish to lead the Muslims astray, when it is actually they who go astray, rejecting the “signs of Allah” even though they are witnesses of them (v. 70). “Signs” is in Arabic “ayat,” which is also the word used for the verses of the Qur’an. Thus this could refer to the delegation of Christians from Najran and/or other Christians and Jews who heard Muhammad recite the Qur’an and still rejected Islam – and, according to Islamic accounts, knew Muhammad was a prophet but didn’t want to admit it for selfish reasons. Says Maududi: “This is why the Qur’an repeatedly blames them for maliciously misrepresenting the signs of God which they saw with their own eyes and to which they themselves attested.” And they even stooped, as recounted in verses 71-2, to subterfuges to try to turn others away from Islam: “they tell a lie against Allah, and (well) they know it” (v. 75). Among these dirty tricks, they pass off their own words as Holy Scripture (v. 78); some skeptics have speculated that Muhammad himself, seeking information about earlier revelations, was among their victims, before he caught on to the ruse.
Verses 79-80 dismiss as “impossible” the idea that a prophet – clearly Jesus – could have taught that he was divine. He is just a prophet like the other prophets (v. 84), and Allah will accept from no one any religion other than Islam (v. 85). And those who reject the true Faith after accepting it bear “the curse of Allah, of His angels, and of all mankind” (verses 86-7). This refers, says Maududi, to the “Jewish rabbis of Arabia” who acknowledged and then denied Muhammad. Verses 93-4 assert that Jewish dietary laws were invented by the Jews (or Jacob – Israel – himself), and v. 95 calls them to reject what Maududi calls “hair-splitting legalism” and return to the true monotheism of Abraham – i.e., Islam.
V. 96 says that the shrine at Mecca (Bakkah) was the world’s first house of worship. It was built, says Ibn Kathir, by Abraham, “whose religion the Jews and Christians claim they follow. However, they do not perform Hajj [Pilgrimage] to the house that Ibrahim built by Allah’s command, and to which he invited the people to perform Hajj.” The People of the Book “reject the signs [ayat] of Allah” (v. 98) and try to obstruct others on the path of Allah (v. 99). If Muslims listen to these Jews and Christians who reject Islam, they will become apostates (v. 100). On the Day of Judgment, the faces of the blessed will be white, and those of the damned will be black (v. 106).
On earth, meanwhile, the Muslims are “the best community that hath been raised up for mankind,” while most Jews and Christians are “perverted transgressors” (v. 110). However, the Muslims need not fear, for the Jews and Christians are also cowards: “if they come out to fight you, they will show you their backs” (v. 111). They are covered with shame – “except when under a covenant (of protection) from Allah and from men” (v. 112). This, says Bulandshahri, refers to the non-Muslims’ agreeing “to pay the atonement (Jizya) to the Muslim state, in which case they will be accorded the rights of a Dhimmi.” These rights are not equal to the rights of Muslims: the dhimmis must accept subservience and second-class status (cf. 9:29) in exchange for a guarantee of protection – as long as they do not offend the Muslims.
Now, all of this is not to paint the People of the Book with a broad brush! Some “rehearse the Signs of Allah all night long, and they prostrate themselves in adoration” (v. 113). According to Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Abbas and others, this refers to “the clergy of the People of the Scriptures who embraced the faith” of Islam. But steer clear of those who don’t accept Islam: v. 118, says Ibn Kathir, forbids Muslims from “taking followers of other religions as consultants and advisors,” for even those who are outwardly kind actually hate the Muslims (v. 119-120).
Next week: The rest of Sura 3 introduces various lessons drawn from the events of the Battle of Badr, the Muslims’ first great victory (624 AD) — when the Muslims were “a contemptible little force” (v. 123) but Allah granted them victory over a numerically superior force of the pagan Quraysh tribe. This battle has had immense influence over Islamic attitudes toward warfare to this day.
(Here you can find links to all the earlier “Blogging the Qur’an” segments. Here is a good Arabic/English Qur’an, here are two popular Muslim translations, those of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, along with a third by M. H. Shakir. Here is another popular translation, that of Muhammad Asad. And here is an omnibus of ten Qur’an translations.)