Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Four Quls: Surah al Kafirun Is About Non-Compromised, Not Tolerance (2/2)

In Part 1, we have seen that, taken out of context, the Quranic teachings can be portrayed in their total opposite.

Likewise with Surah al Kafirun, one of the Four Quls. 

Numerous ahadith (Traditions) are pointing to the reason of its revelation, with a simple background.  Namely, after all their efforts to silence Muhammad had failed, the leaders of the Quraysh had come to Muhammad the Prophet and offered a compromised.  Their proposal was simple: they suggested that Muhammad and his followers worship the idols of the Quraysh for one year, and for another year, the Quraysh would worship the God of Muhammad.1

As a response to that proposal, Allah Himself gave the answer through the revelation of Surah al Kafirun.  Muhammad was commanded to proclaim: “Say, O disbelievers, I do not worship that which you worship, nor do you worship the One whom I worship. And neither I am going to worship that which you have worshipped, nor will you worship the One whom I worship.  For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.” [al Kafirun: 1-6, i.e., the translation of the whole Surah]

With that background, does this Surah sound like a proclamation on religious tolerance, as some allege?  Or, more pointedly, does it sound like a recognition of religious pluralism, the notion that all religions are true and therefore equally good, as others claim?

Quite the opposite, one must admit. 

In fact, this Surah unequivocally states that, as far as faith and worship are concerned, Islam and its counterparts are the complete opposite of each other, and the two cannot and will not meet, nor  can the two will ever mix. 

In the nutshell, Surah al Kafirun is about putting the clear line of separation between belief and unbelief, and the Muslims’ attitude as well as their approach towards unbelief, their objects of worship, as well as their religious rituals. 

This is the position of the classical commentators such as Ibnu Kathir, as well as the position of contemporary commentators like Abu Ala Maudoodi, Sayyid Qutb and Mufti Shafi’ Uthmani.  Those who take the opposite position are displaying intellectual dishonesty, if they are scholars, or ignorance, if they are laymen.

Irrespective of the intention, quoting Quranic verses out of context to fit the preconceived ideas is deplorable.  This practice can confuse the ignorant folks.  As the popular saying goes, many calamities are built upon good intentions.

Furthermore, quoting Surah al Kafirun to signify religious tolerance in Islam does not do justice to this Surah; neither does it do justice to the concept of religious tolerance in Islam.  If quoted to signify the recognition of Islam to religious pluralism, I am afraid that it is already bordering on heresy, for the idea itself is heretic, since Allah does not recognize the true religion other than Islam. 

The only acceptable “pluralism” in Islam is with regard to multiple interpretations or differences in rulings upon certain matters, whereby each different opinion is considered true or valid.  As I wrote in other entries, there are more than one ways to slice a cat.2

In the likewise manner, one can say that there are multiple ways to skin a cow, but for the meat to be consumed lawfully, it must first be slaughtered.  And the meat itself must be from lawful animal to begin with.  It cannot be a pig.  Irrespective whether it is properly slaughtered, and subsequently skinned neatly, a pig is never lawful for consumption, except during emergency, and taken only so that one can continue surviving.

Thus, when Professor Kamali put forward the argument that Islam recognizes Religious Pluralism because various Quranic verses point to the fact that there have been various “religions” sent to the Prophets before Muhammad, and that all were considered true, Professor El-Muhammady quickly pointed out that these were the Prophets sent before Muhammad.  With the advent of Muhammad as the Last Messenger, all these were abrogated. 

Moreover, we know that Muhammad has said even if Moses were still alive, Moses has no choice but to follow Muhammad, as the following Tradition puts it clearly:

“Narrated Jabir Ibn Abdullah :
Umar ibn al-Khattab brought to Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) a copy of the Torah and said: ‘Allah’s Messenger, this is a copy of the Torah’. He (Allah’s Messenger) kept quiet and he (Umar) began to read it. The colour of the face of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) underwent a change, whereupon Abu Bakr said: “Would that your mother mourn you, don’t you see the face of Allah’s Messenger?’ Umar saw the face of Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) and said: ‘I seek refuge with Allah from the wrath of Allah and the wrath of His Messenger. We are well pleased with Allah as Lord, with Islam as religion, and with Muhammad as Prophet’. Whereupon Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) said : ‘By Him in Whose hand is the life of Muhammad, even if Moses were to appear before you and you were to follow him, leaving me aside, you would certainly stray into error; for if (Moses) were alive (now), and he found my prophetical ministry, he would have definitely followed me’. (Sunan Ad-Darimi, Vol. 1, Hadith No. 435)
To his credit, Professor Kamali did not make it unequivocal that Islam recognizes Religious Pluralism as commonly defined.  He went at great length, and with great pain, to theorize what he meant by Pluralism.3  

It appears that he tries to be as diplomatic as he could, although in the end, I am not sure whether he really understands what he wrote, much less whether he really believes it.  He would have done better if he follows the mainstream thinking and risk being called “conservative” rather than taking the “progressive line” and risk being called muddle headed.

A simple folk like me would put the whole matter much more simply.

For the last few years, I have been living in a neighbourhood filled with people of multiple religious persuasions.  Living in a terrace house, on the right side, I share common fence with my Chinese neighbours, who are devoted Buddhists.  They place their altar just next to the door of my house and would burn incense daily.  Having suffered from sinusitis, the burning incense troubles me every time I inhale it, but I never complain about it.  They have the right to exercise their religion.

To my left, also sharing common fence, is Indian family.  They are devoted Hindus.  Aside from having many idols in their house, they would chant their prayers, rather loudly, from time to time.  Since the idols and the sound have nothing to do with sinusitis, I am basically oblivious with their activities. 

Right in front of my house is a devoted Chinese Christian family.  From time to time, they would sing hymns very loudly.  Occasionally they would have congregations and put their speeches on loud speaker.  Their activities generally disturb my reading, but I never complain.  They too have their right to exercise their religion.

On their part, they too never complain about the fact that the road gets congested when the Muslims perform Friday Prayer in our community mosque, just like we never complain of the same when the Hindus, Buddhists and the Christians perform whatever religious ceremony in their respective temples and church in our community.

That, to me, is religious tolerance, of respecting each other to exercise each religion.  It also means that we accept “plurality” in religions, as opposed to Religious Pluralism, which has a specific connotation.

But neither I, nor my other Muslim neighbours, ever participate or partake in their religious ceremonies.  We don’t worship what they worship; neither do they worship what we worship.  We don’t get involved in their religious rituals; neither do they get involved in our religious rituals.  We meet and mix only when non religious activities are involved.

Now, I myself do not hang the Four Quls, but many of my Muslim neighbours do.  I have not seen, however, any Muslim who hangs the Four Quls alongside with Shiva’s Idol, Christian’s Cross, or Buddha’s Statue. 

If truly Islam recognizes “Religious Pluralism,” in the sense that all religions are true and after the same truth, then a Muslim in a multi-religious country like Malaysia should try putting his Four Quls with icons of other religions.  After all, these religions are all the same.  To signify what religion one belongs to, a Muslim can put the Four Quls at the top while the rest of the idols below; a Hindu can put whatever their leading idol top, with the rest below; and so on and so forth.

Since this does not happen, then it is better to declare that Islam is different, and that we should not mix Islamic rituals with the rituals of other religions, as Surah al Kafirun clearly proclaims.  At the same time, we have to accept the fact that people of other religions have the right to exercise theirs, as numerous Quranic verses and Prophetic Traditions allude to.


1.     Said bin Mina (the freed slave of Abul Bakhtari) has related that Walid bin Mughirah, Aas bin Wail, Aswad bin al-Muttalib and Umayyah bin Khalaf met the Holy Prophet (upon whom be peace) and said to him: "O Muhammad, let us agree that we would worship your God and you would worship our gods, and we would make you a partner in all our works. If what you have brought was better than what we possess, we would be partners in it with you, and have our share in it, and if what we possess is better than what you have brought, you would be partner in it with us and have your share of it."At this Allah sent down: Qul ya-ayyuhal-kafirun (Ibn Jarir, Ibn Abi Hatim, Ibn Hisham also has related this incident in the Sirah) [from Ala Maudoodi’s Tafhim al Quran].

2.     Those interested may go to this “Slice Cat” Series: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

3.     Go herefor Professor Kamali’s “clearly vague” discourse on Quranic Perspective of Diversity and Pluralism.

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