People of the Book (1)

August 20, 2016

Quite a few years ago I came across the lovely concept of ‘the people of the book’, which is a term Muslims use to identify a commonality between themselves, Jews and Christians: we all share a belief in a single God and have communication from that God in scriptural writings which form a central place in our religions; furthermore, those scriptures share many stories and events. This would not be difficult, given that those faiths all arose and developed in the same area of the world. But the concept is an important one, and it has affected the ways in which Islam has responded to, and treated its ‘fellow religions’.

Islam seems generally, in the past, to have been pretty tolerant to the two other faiths. Clearly they weren’t regarded as equal to Islam, and Christians and Jews in Muslim territory were usually subject to various regulations and restrictions, and had to pay an extra tax, but were then allowed to get on with their lives and practise their faith relatively undisturbed. Christians do not ever seem to have been that tolerant, behaving rather with the belief that anyone who didn’t adhere to a particular flavour of it was damned, and needed forcibly to be converted so they could be ‘saved’, whatever that might mean…

A consequence of the Catholic reconquista of Spain in 1492 – the final re-conquest of all the territory from Muslims who had ruled large tracts of Spain for the previous seven centuries – was the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the newly recovered country. In my lifetime, as a young Catholic, prayers were regularly said ‘for the conversion of the Jews’…

I have been interested in the Qur’an as scripture sacred to a faith for many years. When I was a child, a workmate of my father’s, a recent immigrant from Pakistan, visited us and brought his copy to our house to show us; I was fascinated by the veneration with which he treated the holy book, and its physical beauty. In my later years I have read an English version of it – I found it difficult, because of the repetitive style. I’ve also listened to a recording of an English version a couple of times, which was much easier and more interesting – it is a book designed to be recited, after all.

Many of the stories we are perhaps familiar with from the Bible are also to be found in the Qur’an: the emphasis or the details may be slightly different as may the names, but they are shared, as they would be, coming from the same part of the world and the same peoples. Mary the mother of Jesus is mentioned far more times here than in the New Testament.

It is a very repetitive book, as one might expect from a book intended to be memorised and recited; it is very exhortatory, the voice of God telling his people to do this or do that or else face the consequences, and those consequences are often dire. In my recollection it’s no more or less violent than the Old Testament, and I did have the strong impression that the strictness and the threats were tempered with mercy offered to anyone who sought or deserved it: Allah is the Beneficent and the Merciful. And just as so much of the Christian scripture is open to multiple interpretation, it’s clear from the modern Muslim world that their scripture is just as open…

For Muslims, Jesus is a prophet to be revered along with other prophets; he died but did not come back to life. And Muhammad is the last in the line of the prophets, and his revelation, revealed from God, is on a par with that of the other prophets, but perhaps has added significance because it is the last one.

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