When discussing the Muslim approach to other religions, the focus has usually been on the Qur’anic or broader Islamic view of other religions and their legitimacy or validity. This is usually understood to mean the scriptural or traditional Islamic assessment of the ability of these other religions to adequately guide and ultimately save their adherents, as well as of the intellectual soundness of their doctrines and the authenticity of their scriptures. Given the extensive Qur’anic discussion of Judaism and Christianity, and numerous reports of the Prophet Muĥammad’s own engagement with both Jews and Christians in his community and in the wider Arabian context, there would seem to be substantial material to draw upon in evaluating the Islamic view of Judaism and Christianity, which are indeed the religions closest to the Islamic tradition in every way, and those with whom Muslims have most extensively interacted, both historically and theologically.
However, as is well known, this material is far from being categorical or clear in its assessment of these two religious traditions. The Qur’an, in places, offers quite explicit assertions of the possibility of salvation for those who are Jews and Christians (and Sabeans),1 while in others, it considers some of their most cherished beliefs to be incoherent, erroneous, or arrogant, and thus liable to divine punishment both in this world and the hereafter.2 In certain verses, it warns Muslim believers not to take Jews and Christians as awliyā’ (“protectors,” yet often translated less accurately as “friends”),3 but in another, allows the possibility of substantive and even intimate relationships with them, most notably when it permits eating the food of the “those who have been given the Book” (permitting members of these communities to share meals together, a fundamental basis of social interaction) and marrying women from these religious communities.4 In certain passages, it enjoins Jews and Christians to adhere to their own revealed scriptures, while in others, it suggests the altered and imperfect nature of those scriptures,5 which already existed by Muĥammad’s time,6 or suggests that following the Jewish and Christian scriptures sincerely would and should lead Jews and Christians to embrace Muĥammad’s prophecy and the Qur’anic message revealed to him.7 Moreover, the Qur’an criticizes Jews and Christians somewhat differently (although often Qur’anic admonitions are issued collectively to “the People of the Book”). For example, the Qur’an quite directly rejects some of the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity—including not only its trinitarian doctrine and the belief in the sonship and divinity of Jesus (as we have seen), but also Jesus’ crucifixion8—even as it bears witness to the moral virtue of Christians.9 By contrast, it is, on the whole, much less critical of Jewish doctrine or practice but calls the Jewish community to task for what it suggests is a broad, although not necessarily universal,10 failure to live up to the moral and ritual demands enjoined upon their community by God.11
It is not my intention here to evaluate the various ways in which these Qur’anic statements regarding Jews and Christians have been reconciled by Islamic scholars past and present. Although very different conclusions have been reached,12 any approach to reconciling different Qur’anic statements on this issue generally requires emphasizing particular verses and deemphasizing others, or else taking certain Qur’anic statements as clear and literal, and others as in need of interpretation. Suffice it to say that the ambiguity in Qur’anic statements about Jews and Christians is pervasive enough that the issue must be seen as ultimately irresolvable, and by a believer in the Qur’an and its divine origin, perhaps as deliberately so. After all, from the latter perspective, if God had wished to speak categorically against or in support of the soundness of these other religions, He surely could have done so.13
Many traditional scholars take a diachronic approach to reconciling various Qur’anic statements or prophetic examples regarding Jews and Christians, suggesting that an initial openness to Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and the actions of the Prophet ﷺ reflected the hope that members of these two communities would become faithful allies of the Prophet ﷺ and ultimately embrace his message. When these hopes were not fulfilled, a more critical and confrontational position emerged, both in the Qur’an and in the actions of the Prophet ﷺ—an approach that some would argue is the definitive one for all later Muslim generations.14 Those seeking a more convivial and mutually accepting relationship among Muslims, Jews, and Christians typically argue that these different attitudes toward Jews and Christians in the Qur’an and prophetic history should not be read as a unidirectional trajectory toward increasing hostility and rejection but, instead, as a set of different approaches taken in response to varying attitudes among Jews and Christians toward the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ and his community. When these communities displayed hostility or treachery, the approach was confrontational; when they showed openness and respect for the Prophet ﷺ and the Qur’an (even without becoming members of the Muslim community), the approach was more conciliatory. Those taking the latter approach would argue that the behavior of Muslims after this time in relation to Jews and Christians should be guided by this example. For as the Qur’an says: “God does not forbid you, with regard to those who did not fight you on account of religion and did not expel you from your homes, from treating them righteously and being just toward them. Truly God loves the just.”15
None of this, however, helps us resolve in a clear and absolute manner those ultimate questions about the validity or salvific possibility of Judaism and Christianity from the Islamic perspective. Indeed, I would argue that the Qur’an, through its own ambiguity on these matters and its explicit assertion that differences between religions will ultimately be explained in the hereafter,16 asks its audience to forgo any definitive judgments in this regard, even while it offers important guidelines about how to engage other religions in the absence of absolute clarity on this issue. In what follows, I wish to suggest what one might call a set of Qur’anic “rules of engagement” for interacting with Jews and Christians in peaceful and dialogic contexts and argue that, from a Qur'anic perspective, demonstrations of virtue and good manners (adab) in such interactions are ultimately as important as, or perhaps more important than, the eloquence of words and the rigor of arguments.17
The idea of Islamic adab—meaning good manners, proper comportment, and even social ethics—is frequently based upon or connected with the concepts of ĥusn or iĥsān. These are terms with a wide semantic range, entailing the notions of beauty, goodness, and virtue. The idea of Islamic ethics is sometimes referred to as ĥusn al-akhlāq, and it is well known that according to the hadith of Gabriel, iĥsān or virtue (described as “worshipping God as if [one] saw Him”) represents an intensification of one’s religious commitment beyond the confessional demands of submission (islām) and faith (īmān).18 We find that the Qur’an employs a related term to describe the manner and comportment one should assume when disputing with Jews and Christians or others who may not share one’s religious views:
And dispute not with the People of the Book, save in the most beautiful way (lā tujādilū ahl al-kitāb illā bi allatī hiya aĥsan), unless it be those of them who have done wrong. And say, “We believe in that which was sent down unto us and was sent down unto you; our God and your God is one, and unto Him we submit” (29:46).
Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation (maw¢iżat al-ĥasanah) (jādilhum bi allatī hiya aĥsan). Surely thy Lord is He Who knows best those who stray from His way, and He knows best the rightly guided (16:125).
Both verses cited here use the same phrase to describe the ideal manner in which one should dispute with Jews and Christians or members of other religions: “the most beautiful way.” One might also translate this as “the best way” or “the most virtuous way.” Recognizing the connection between these ideas of beauty, virtue, and goodness is important to understanding the meaning of the Qur’anic enjoinder here. Determinations of beauty, virtue, or goodness, on one level, might be the result of individual or at least communally particular judgments. Different religious communities might emphasize one set of virtues above others, and, of course, individuals might differ about standards of beauty. On another level, however, and perhaps a higher one, beauty, goodness, and virtue, as such, are commonly recognized by all human beings and transcend the particular ethical or religious systems that seek to expound them. The same can be said for wisdom—recognized as a virtue in all religious cultures—which is described in the second verse quoted here as the means by which one should call others to God. Thus, we can say that when the Qur’an instructs Muslims to engage the religious other, even in dispute, in “the most beautiful way” and “with wisdom,” it is asking them to conduct themselves in a manner that is not only beautiful and wise in their own view, but that will be recognized as beautiful, good, virtuous, and wise by their interlocutors.
When the Qur’an instructs Muslims to engage the religious other, even in dispute, through “that which is most beautiful” and “with wisdom,” it is asking them to conduct themselves in a manner that is not only beautiful and wise to them, but that will be recognized as beautiful, good, virtuous, and wise by their interlocutors.
What can it mean, then, to dispute in the most beautiful way? Classical commentators elaborated upon this injunction in a fairly consistent manner. For example, al-Zamakhsharī says that this means that in the context of dispute, one should “respond to harshness with gentleness, to anger with a restraint of anger, and to act with great patience.”19 Al-Qurţubī says that it means that one should dispute with others by calling them to God and making them aware of His proofs and His signs, and hoping they will respond with belief.20 Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī explains that when one is engaging virtuous individuals from the People of the Book—those who believe in God, revelation, prophethood (generally), and resurrection, and whose only shortcoming is that they do not recognize the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ—the proper way to engage them is through peaceful and virtuous disputation (mujādalah) that neither belittles their views nor accuses their ancestors of error.21
Most commentators do take note, however, of the exception that Qur’an 29:46 makes regarding those among the People of the Book who “have done wrong (illā alladhīna żalamū).” Some, such as al-Rāzī, argue that this refers to one who “is a mushrik, who affirms that God has a son or professes the trinity, for such a person resembles [the mushrikūn] in his wrong beliefs, and they are the wrongdoers (żālimūn) because shirk is great żulm.”22 In this case, al-Rāzī recommends taking a harsher and more disparaging tone. If understood as al-Rāzī explains it, this Qur’anic exception would mean that all dialogue with believing Christians would have to take this harsher form, for there is no major Christian denomination that does not profess the trinity. Since the verb żalama means not only to do wrong but also to be unjust, however, al-Qurţubī understands the exception to pertain only to those who behave unjustly toward you (perhaps meaning toward Muslims collectively), for if żalamū here meant simply holding standard Christian theological doctrines that are criticized by the Qur’an, all Christians would be considered żālimūn, and this would effectively nullify the verse’s primary injunction.23
If we accept al-Qurţubī’s explanation of the exemption (which seems more consistent with other verses, such as 60:8, cited above), then we can proceed to the example the verse itself gives us of what disputing in the most beautiful way should look like. Specifically, it instructs Muslims to say to the People of the Book: “We believe in that which was sent down unto us and was sent down unto you; our God and your God is one, and unto Him we submit” (29:46). This suggests that a beautiful and virtuous dispute between Muslims and the People of the Book should begin with an affirmation of the fundamental religious beliefs they have in common—here, specifically that they recognize the same God and mutually accept each other’s scriptures as divine revelation. Ideally, beginning in this way can have the effect of establishing trust and mutual respect for one another as people of belief and devotion, as well as the parties’ good intentions for the dialogue or dispute. When one eventually moves from points of agreement to those of disagreement, an established basis of mutual agreement will make the parties’ sincere intentions in articulating disagreements, and in attempting to understand if not resolve them, clearer to each other.
Despite the explicit Qur’anic instruction to Muslims to dispute with other religious communities in a beautiful or virtuous way, the Qur’an engages Jews and Christians directly in a more critical and seemingly less tolerant fashion. Many Qur’anic verses take the form of divine instructions given to the Prophet ﷺ about what to say to his religious critics or how to respond to challenges from other religious groups, and these often take a polemical tone, presenting arguments meant to demonstrate the logical or theological errors of the Prophet’s interlocutors. Even in such cases, I would argue, the Qur’an regularly seeks to persuade members of these other communities of the errors in their own religious thinking, and of the truth brought by the Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ by appeal to common religious principles. Another Qur’anic rule of engagement for interreligious dialogue or even dispute, therefore, is to strive as much as possible to find common ground and then to speak on the basis of shared religious principles.
The Qur’an—which is itself engaged in an interreligious dialogue of sorts with the various other religions in the Arabian Peninsula and surrounding area—demonstrates and implicitly recommends this practice by continually invoking with reverence the sacred terms, persons, and events that are recognized by Jews and Christians in their own scriptures (despite some differences in their representation and narratives), forming a natural and shared basis of interreligious dialogue among these three traditions. It also explicitly and repeatedly affirms that Muslims believe in all of the prophets (peace be upon them) and books—sometimes specifically naming Abraham and his sons, as well as Moses and Jesus (peace be upon them), among those whom Muslims believe in “without making distinctions” between them.24 The Qur’an even takes this approach occasionally (but less extensively) with the pagan Arabs, for example, by mentioning the Qur’an invokes the stories of Arab prophets unknown in the biblical tradition. In one case, it instructs the Prophet ﷺ to engage the pagan Meccans on the basis of their common belief in Allah as Creator: “And wert thou to ask them, ‘Who created the heavens and the earth?’ they would surely say, ‘God.’ Say, ‘Then have you considered those upon whom you call, apart from God? If God desires some harm for me, could they remove His Harm, or if He desires some mercy, could they withhold His Mercy?’”25 Having established their agreement that Allah is the Creator, the Prophet ﷺ can then go on to rhetorically question how such a belief can be reconciled with their polytheistic practices.
Yet it is in relation to Jews and Christians that the Qur’an is the most engaging in this regard. In Qur’an 3:64, the Prophet ﷺ is instructed to directly invite the People of the Book to enter into a religious discussion with him and to do so by asking them first to acknowledge a “common word” between them on fundamental religious matters:
Say, “O People of the Book! Come to a word common between us and you, that we shall worship none but God, shall not associate aught with Him, and shall not take one another as lords apart from God.” And if they turn away, then say, “Bear witness that we are submitters (muslimūn).”
This verse became the verbatim basis of an invitation to dialogue issued by a group of Muslim religious scholars to the Roman Catholic Church, as well as other Christian denominations, in 2003—an invitation that has been the inspiration for a series of productive interreligious exchanges.26 The Qur’anic invitation to dialogue on the shared religious principle of monotheism articulated in this verse thus has continued to invite dialogue between Muslims and Christians across fourteen centuries of Islamic history and into the contemporary world. The effectiveness of the Muslim scholars’ invocation of this verse—for both Muslims and Christians involved in the dialogue—seems to belie the idea that such inviting Qur’anic approaches were applicable only in an early period of the Prophet’s mission and have no usefulness or purpose after the revelation of later verses enjoining a more confrontational approach to Jews and Christians.
Even when the Qur’an is most critical of Christians in verses that explicitly reject trinitarian theology27 and Christian doctrines of the sonship and divinity of Jesus (peace be upon him), it can nonetheless be understood as making an argument on the basis of the shared theological principle of monotheism. The Qur’anic critiques of these doctrines seem indeed quite harsh, and one important example immediately follows 9:29, which permitted fighting at least some People of the Book until they paid the jizyah:
The Jews say that Ezra is the son of God, and the Christians say that the Messiah is the son of God. Those are words from their mouths. They resemble the words of those who disbelieved before. God curse them! How are they perverted? They have taken their rabbis and monks as lords apart from God, as well as the Messiah, son of Mary, though they were commanded to worship only one God. There is no god but He! Glory be to Him above the partners they ascribe (9:30-31).
Even beyond considering Jews and Christians to be disbelievers insofar as they did not accept the prophethood of Muĥammad ﷺ, this passage attributes to Jews and Christians doctrines and practices that are here explicitly likened to Arab polytheism, or shirk, when it claims that these words “resemble the words of those who disbelieved before” (often understood to mean pagan religions practiced before Judaism and Christianity) and concludes with an assertion of God’s transcendence over the “partners they ascribe” (¢ammā yushrikūn).
As strident as this critique might seem, it may represent a particular polemical strategy meant to persuade Jews, and especially Christians, of the error of these doctrines or practices by suggesting their closeness to the beliefs and practices of Arab paganism. Christians on the Arabian Peninsula must have known about the Arab pagan religion and likely disdained it as a crude and illiterate religion in comparison with their own. In this context, then, the Qur’an is likely not arguing that Christian trinitarian doctrine actually constitutes polytheism, or shirk 28after all, such a judgment would directly contradict the distinctions the Qur’an makes elsewhere between the People of the Book and the polytheists.29 Rather, it may reflect a Qur’anic attempt to dissuade Christians from such beliefs on the basis of a shared monotheistic and scriptural aversion to and rejection of polytheism. In a similar way, the Qur’anic critique of Jews specifically, which regularly centers on charges that the Jews have broken their covenant with God, or failed to fulfill the moral and ritual requirements of this covenant, is largely consistent with the Hebrew Bible’s own critique of the Israelites. In other words, it is a critique based on a shared view of covenant and its obligations.