Azmeh Answers to Questions

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Date: June 5, 2005

Location: Alumni Hall RM 101

Topic: A dialogue with a progressive Daytonian Muslim couple

Speakers: Drs. Wayel and Ramzieh Azmeh

To my dear Christian-Jewish Dialogue friends,

I would like to apologize for the delay in sending you an excerpt of my comments from our dialogue last June. Here are some of my thoughts, they certainly bear expansion and I would appreciate any comments or question that may help in developing them further if necessary. As is obvious to all of us, dialogue is a two way street that benefits all those who partake in it. It is, to borrow from the Socratic ideal, the midwife that helps deliver the baby of wisdom resident in our respective traditions that would delight all of us participants.

I will use the questions that were delivered to me and served as a basis for our dialogue, they are italicized:

Please be specific in your answers, giving references:

1-       If we understand correctly, you do not believe in freedom of religion as we in the U.S. understand it, for Saudi Arabia. Do you believe in freedom of religion as Americans understand it for all other people in the world? Why?

 I would like to start by emphasizing that “we in the US” certainly includes all of us here: Muslims, Christians and Jews and other fellow Americans who practice other world religions. Any US citizen who is a participant in our democracy should be presumed to cherish the Bill of Rights unless they state otherwise.

Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, Afghanistan’s Taliban, the late Franco regime in Spain (which kept Spain 100% catholic until 1980), the late Marcus regime in the Philippines, the late Pinochet regime in Chile and even the settler movement in Palestine/Israel do not and cannot speak for Americans no matter what their religious and cultural persuasions are. As Americans we have all been blessed by a system that fosters freedom of speech and religion, encouraging independent thinking. Therefore, it should be obvious by now that we hold identical positions on unequivocal and unrestricted freedom of religion anywhere in the World.

2-       What does abrogation mean in the Koran? What was abrogated? Give specific passages. Is there any agreement among Moslems about what was or still is abrogated? See Koran 2:106 and 16:101.

This is a very interesting and controversial concept in Islamic religious law.

I am going to quote from page 22-23 of “The Message of the Qur’an” which is a translation and commentary on the Qur’an Muhammad Asad; Published by Dar Al-Andalus 1980—one of the best translations and best commentaries in English:

“Any message We will annul or consign to oblivion We replace with a better or similar one.” 2:105-106


The principle laid down in this passage-relating to the suppression of the Biblical dispensation by that of the Qur’an has given rise to an erroneous interpretation by many Muslim theologians. The word “ayah”-message occurring in this context is also used to denote a “verse” of the Qur’an (because every one of these verses contains a message). Taking this restricted meaning of the term ayah, some scholars conclude from the above passage that certain verses of the Qur’an have been “abrogated” by God’s command before the revelation of the Qur’an was completed. Apart from the fancifulness of this assertion-which calls to mind the image of a human author correcting, on second thought, the proofs of his manuscript, deleting one passage and replacing it with another-there does not exist a single reliable Tradition to the effect the Prophet ever declared a verse of the Qur’an to have been “abrogated”. At the root of the so-called “doctrine of abrogation” may lie the inability of some of the early commentators to reconcile one Qur’anic passage with another: a difficulty which was overcome by declaring that one of the verses in question has been “abrogated”. This arbitrary procedure explains also why there is no unanimity whatsoever among the upholders of the “doctrine of abrogation” as to which, and how many, Qur’an verses have been affected by it; and furthermore, as to whether this alleged abrogation implies a total elimination of the verse in question from the context of the Qur’an, or only a cancellation of the specific ordinance or statement contained in it. In short the “doctrine of abrogation” has no basis whatever in historical fact, and must be rejected. On the other hand, the apparent difficulty in interpreting the above Qur’anic passage disappears immediately if the term ayah is understood, correctly as “message”, and if we read this verse in conjunction with the preceding one, which states that the Jews and the Christians refuse to accept any revelation which might supercede that of the Bible; for, if read in this way, the abrogation relates to earlier divine messages and not to any part of the Qur’an itself.

“And now that We replace one message by another-since God is fully aware of what He bestows from on high, step by step- they [who deny the truth] are wont to say, “Thou but inventest it!”Nay, but most of them do not understand it! [16:101]

3-       To whom do the references to Jews and /or Christians as apes and pigs apply? Explain them. Do those references still apply or are they limited to the time of Mohamed? See Koran 5:60 and 7:166.

 “Verily, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians-all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear shall they grieve. And Lo! We accepted your solemn pledge, raising Mount Sinai high above you, [and saying],]”Hold fast with [all your]strength unto what we have vouchsafed you, and bear in mind all that is therein, so that you might remain conscious of God! And you turned away from that! And had it not been for God’s favor upon you and His grace, you would surely have found yourselves among the lost; for you are well aware of those from among you who profaned the Sabbath, whereupon We said unto them, Be as apes despicable!”-and set them up as a warning example for their time and for all times to come, as well as admonition to all who are conscious of God”” 2:62-65

“… And then, when they disdainfully persisted in doing what they had been forbidden to do, We said unto them:” Be as apes despicable” 7:166

Only their hearts were transformed that is, they were not really transformed into apes; this is but a metaphor coined by God with regard to them… Muhammad Asad Page 228

“Say: “Shall I tell you who, in the sight of God , deserves a yet worse retribution than these? They whom God has rejected and whom He has condemned, and whom He has turned into apes and swine because they worshipped the power of evil: these are yet worse in station and further astray from the right path [than the mockers]” 5:60

“As is obvious from those polemical verses (there are others that are not, depending on the relationship between the early Muslim community and the other various groups), the ape and pig metaphor applies strictly to the hearts of those who challenged God overtly, it applies to those who profaned the Sabbath, insisted on challenging and disobeying what God has asked them to do, or worshipped the power of evil. This metaphor certainly applies to any human being who commits a similar kind of transgression against God, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.” … Muhammad Asad…

Some of the major founding principles in the Qur'an are:

Human dignity: Now, indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things in life, and favored them far above most of Our creation. 17:70,

Universal justice:: “O you who have attained to faith! Be ever steadfast in upholding equity, bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God, even though it is against your own selves or your parents and kinsfolk. Whether the person concerned is rich or poor, God's claim takes precedence over [the claims of] either of them. Do not, then, follow your own desires, lest you swerve from justice: for if you distort [the truth], behold, God is indeed aware of all that you do!” 4:135,

Equality for all: “O men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, God is all-knowing, all-aware.” 49:13 and

No one bears someone else’s sin: “Say: “Am I, then to seek a sustainer other than God, when He is the Sustainer of all things?” And whatever [wrong] any human being commits rests upon him alone; and no bearer of burdens shall be made to bear another’s burden. And in time, unto your Sustainer you all must return: and then He will make you [truly] understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” 6:164

Therefore anybody who resorts to racial slurrs against any group of human beings is going contrary to the spirit and text of the Qur'an.

4-       Explain the treatment of Dhimmis(Christians and Jews in Moslem countries), are they still to pay special taxes and be humbled? How high the taxes? How low the humbling? A slap on the face when paying the tax? Special clothing? Other disabilities? Should it still apply in Moslem countries? See 9:28

“O You who have attained to faith! Those who ascribe divinity to aught beside God are nothing but impure: and they shall not approach the inviolable House of worship from this year onwards. And should you fear poverty, then [know that] in time God will enrich you out of His bounty, if He so wills: for, verily, God is all-knowing, wise! 9:28

This has nothing to do with the people of the Book! The tradition tells about a group of Meccan polytheists who used to honor the Kaaba (The inviolable House of worship built by Abraham in Mecca”. They had a belief that they were not supposed to worship God who they recognized in addition to other lesser gods in the same clothing they had on when they committed their sins. They therefore used to shed off their clothes and circ-ambulate completely naked in the holiest place of worship in Islam. The Prophet was very offended by this sight but was not sure he had the authority to ban them from the place. Therefore the above verse was revealed and they were banned from the place ever since. The story can be found in some exegetical works or the biography of the Prophet such as Ibn Ishaac. This applies to the “Inviolable House” only, the closest example that comes to mind in the Abrahamic tradition is the “Holy of the Holies” in Temple of Jerusalem.

And fight against those who-despite having been vouchsafed revelation [aforetime]-do not [truly] believe either in God or the Last Day, and do not consider forbidden that which God and His apostle have forbidden, and do not follow the religion of truth [which God has enjoined upon them], till they [agree to] pay the exemption tax with a willing hand, after having been humbled [in war]” 9:29

“… This to my mind, is the key-phrase of the above ordinance. The term “apostle” is obviously used here in its generic sense and applies to all the prophets on whose teachings the beliefs of the Jews and Christians are supposed to be based-in particular, to Moses and (in the case of the Christians) to Jesus as well (Manar X, 333 and 337). Since earlier in this sentence, the people alluded to are accused of so grave a sin as willfully refusing to believe in God and the Last Day(i.e., in life after death and man’s individual responsibility for his doings on earth), it is inconceivable that they should subsequently be blamed for comparatively minor offenses against their religious las: consequently, the stress on their” not forbidding what God and His apostle have forbidden” must refer to something which is as grave, or almost as grave, as disbelief in God. In the context of an ordinance enjoining war against them, this “something” can mean only one thing-namely, unprovoked aggression: for it is this that has been forbidden by God through all the apostles who were entrusted with conveying His message to man. Thus the above verse must be understood as a call to the believers to fight against such-and only such- of the normal followers of earlier revelation as deny their own professed beliefs by committing aggression against the followers of the Qur'an (cf Manar X, 338).” Asad Page261

“…and having become incorporated in the “Islamic state”. The term Jizyah, rendered by me as “exemption tax”, occurs in the Qur'an only once, but its meaning and purpose have been fully explained in many authentic traditions. It is intimately bound up with the concept of the Islamic State as an ideological organization: and this is a point which must always be borne in mind if the real purport of this tax is to be understood. In the Islamic state every able-bodied Muslim is obliged to take up arms in jihad )i.e., in a just war in God’s cause) whenever the freedom of his faith or the political safety of his community is imperiled: in other words, every able-bodied Muslim is liable to compulsory military service. Since this is, primarily, a religious obligation, non-Muslim citizens, who do not subscribe to the ideology of Islam, cannot in fairness be expected to assume a similar burden. On the other hand, they must be accorded full protection of all their civic rights and of their religious freedom: and it is in order to compensate the Muslim community for this unequal distribution of civic burdens that a special tax is levied on non-Muslim citizens(Ahl adh-dhimmah, lit., coventated)”[or “protected”] people, i.e. non-Muslims whose safety is statutorily assured by the Muslim community). Thus jizya  is no more and no less than an exemption tax in lieu of military service and in compensation for the “ covenant of protection” (dhimmah) accorded to such citizens by the Islamic state. (The term itself is derived from the verb jaza,,, “He rendered [something] as a satisfaction”, or “as a compensation [in lieu of something else]”—cf.lane II, 422) No fixed rate has been set either by the Qur'an or by the Prophet for this tax; but from all available Traditions it is evident that it is to be considerably lower than the tax called zakah (“The purifying dues”) to which Muslims are liable and which—because it is a specifically Islamic religious duty—is naturally not to be levied on non-Muslims. Only such of the non-Muslim citizens who, if they were Muslims, would be expected to serve in the armed forces of the state are liable to the payment of jizyah, provided that they can easily afford it. Accordingly, all non-Muslim citizens whose personal status or condition would automatically free them from the obligation to render military service are statutorily—that is, on the basis of clear-cut ordinances promulgated by the Prophet—exempted from the payment of jizyah: a) all women, b) males who have not yet reached full maturity, c) old men, d) all sick or crippled men, e) priests and monks. All non-Muslims citizens who volunteer for military service are obviously exempted from the payment of jizyah.

My rendering of the expressions “An yad” and “lit (out of hand)” as “with a willing hand”, that is, without reluctance, is based on one of several explanations offered by Zamakhshari in his commentary on the above verse. Rashid Rida, taking the word yed in its metaphorical significance of “power” or “ability”, relates the phrase “An yed” to the financial ability of the person liable to the payment of jizyahC Manar X, 342”: an interpretation which is undoubtedly justified in view of the accepted definition of this tax. Asad page 262

I have quoted Asad and approve of the gist of his explanation but I disagree with the terminology of “ideological Islamic state”. I think the state at that time was a product of both the Islamic principles of justice applied to a pre-industrialized tribal and then agrarian-feudal society. An Islamic state in my view is not an ideological entity imposed on people, but a state that strives to apply the Islamic principles of Mercy, Justice, Freedom, Peace and Human Dignity that are in essence no different from the universal human rights proclaimed not only by the Abrahamic faiths but also by other religions and cultures. The expression of those values in our post-industrial society would certainly be best expressed in the values of democracy. Not only is the Dhimmi status obsolete in our era of openness and de-ghetoization, but I do not know of any modern state, including despotic ones in our modern era who has that kind of tax anymore. All citizens in modern states in majority Muslim states are subject to military service except for clergy members, all citizens are equal, in theory at least, and happily so. People are no longer striving to live comfortably in isolation in their favorite ghetto. We have grown up into the era of the global village.

The answer to the rest of the above questions becomes at this point self-evident.

5-       Is the penalty for apostasy still death? (See Oxford Dictionary of Islam)? Also sahih Bukhari Vol 9: Book 87 # 6878...also Sahih Muslim Vol III, P. 1084, H 4154, Kitab Bhavan Publ, New Delhi.

The Qur'an states unequivocally “There is no compulsion in religion”.

Any Traditions that contradict the Qur'an have to be either reconciled by a valid explanation or outright rejected, no matter how authentic the chain of narration is. The Qur'an was written immediately as soon as it was revealed, while the Prophet had forbidden his companions to write the “Hadith”-the sayings of the Prophet.

The only valid reconciliation between the Qur'an and the above Traditions is to limit this ruling to the state of war where two armies are in the midst of armed hostilities. In fact this is not unlike the universally accepted punishment for defectors in the middle of hostilities from one army to the other usually sanctioned by the capital punishment.

Therefore the Qur'anic injunction for freedom of religion should always be the rule in Islamically inspired societies and states unless there is defection to the camp of the enemy in the midst of the war, i.e. outright treason.

6-       There are two forms of Jihad: (1) Greater Jihad, the struggle to improve oneself and (2) Lesser Jihad, the military struggle to spread Islam? How does the lesser Jihad apply in today's world?

Fighting, or the lesser jihad is ordained in only two situations: self defense and oppression (such as denial of freedom of conscience); “Permission (to fight) is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged-and verily, God has indeed the power to succor them-those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, “Our Sustainer is God!” 22:39-40

“And how could you refuse to fight in the cause of God and the utterly helpless men and women and children who are crying:’O our Sustainer! Lead us forth [to freedom] out of this land whose people are oppressors…”4:75

Therefore there is no place for a military struggle to spread Islam, this in fact violates and contradicts the Qur'anic verse that establishes the freedom of religion. Historically this has been manifested by Muslims remaining a minority for 300 years in Damascus, the capital of the Muslim empire during the Omayyad dynasty according to Dr Bowersock’s book “ Late antiquity.

7-       Is the Koran in error when it places Hamman in the court of Pharoah in Egypt ( the Exodus story) insted of the court of Ahasureus in Persia (the story of Queen Esther)? See Koran 28:6, 28:37, 29:39, 40:23, 40:36.

Phenomenology attempts to get to the truth of matters, to describe phenomena, in the broadest sense as whatever appears in the manner in which it appears, that is as it manifests itself to consciousness, to the experiencer.

Instead of splitting hair about whose scriptural details are correct, it would be much more conducive to achieving our dialogue goals to enjoy the moral and wisdom of the stories and see if regardless of the technicality of the names we can draw on them for inspiration and connecting with our shared ideals. Let other people perpetuate the 1400 years old polemics and let us focus on implementing the spirit of the stories in our daily lives. What the spirit of the story is instructs us much more than who the protagonist was. It also gives us an ideal to implement and makes us more godly.

It is always a pleasure to be here and learn from this unique atmosphere that combines both: the depth of godly spirituality with the height of sophisticated intellect.

Thank you. We are looking forward to the next sessions.


1-       The Message of the Qur'an; Muhammad Asad; Dar Al-Andalus; 1980

2-       Late Antiquity, A Guide to the Postclassical World; G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar; Belknap Press of Harvard  University Press;1999

3-       Rethinking World History; Marshall G.S. Hodgson; Cambridge University Press; 1993

4-       Jihad vs. Terrorism; Dr Maher Hathout; MVI; 2002

Recommended reading:

1-       Reading the Muslim Mind; Hassan Hathout; American Trust Publications; 1995

2-       Concepts from the Qur'an, a Topical Reading; Fathi Osman; 1997

3-       Jihad vs. Terrorism; Dr Maher Hathout; MVI; 2002

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