The ‘Word’ in the Qur’an
The phrase “Word(s) of God” (Kalam Ullah) occurs in the following verses:
The root QAL can mean just ‘words’ or ‘God’s words’ or ‘Word’ of God. (Kalam Ullah) It can be used as a verb or noun and so has a dynamic quality: it is a ‘living’ word. The same is found in the Hebrew equivalent where words are deeds and deeds are words.
The term surah does not mean ‘chapter’ but ‘portrait’ or ‘picture’. The surah then should not be read sequentially so much as a whole, just as a person looks at a painting as a whole and lets the eye follow where it will from one spot to another, perhaps differently one day from the next. The totality of the surah must be kept in mind and the essence of the whole be allowed to predominate, rather than breaking it up into parts, as we are doing here in studying individual verses!
This approach differs from a Gospel story which is read sequentially or a treatise which is read in logical sequence.
Arabic has no capitals, nor does it use full stops or commas so that it is sometimes difficult to know where a sentence or phrase begins or ends.
- Surah Al-Baqarah (2), verse 75
“(O Muslims!) Do you expect that they (the Jews) will believe in you, whereas amongst them were people of a group who heard the Word of Allah (Tawrat [the Torah]), then altered it (themselves) after understanding it, although they knew well (what the truth was and what they were doing)?”
“Do you expect that they (the Jews) will believe in you?”
The question is raised, rather rhetorically “will the Jews believe in you” and your message, Oh Muslims, when they do not revere their own revelation? They did receive “the Word of Allah” and understood it, but consciously altered it. This shows the ill-will, indeed the sin of the Jews for receiving and understanding but rejecting and altering the divine Word. It is a strong condemnation meant to inculcate the proper approach of a devout Muslim..
It is not clear what the word ‘alter’ means. Does it refer to differences concerning the favourite son of Abraham, the centrality of the Kaaba etc?
- Surah Al-Tawba (9), verse 6
“And if any of the idolaters seeks asylum with you, provide him with protection until he listens to the Words of Allah. Then escort him to his haven. This is because these people do not possess the knowledge (of the truth).”
The idolaters are presumably the Arabic tribes who were polytheists and worshipped gods and goddesses and their offspring. Despite their idolatry the Muslims are to give protection to them if they seek asylum. It is a very beautiful verse.
‘until he listen to the Words of Allah ‘
The revelation of the Qur’an is then given to them, but it is not clear what the word ‘until’ means. Does it involve just hearing or does it also mean accepting and believing? Does it mean ‘so that’?
‘escort him to his haven ‘
The idolaters are not only not harmed by the Muslims but even protected by them against the idolaters’ enemies, and escorted back to a safe haven.
- Surah Al-Fath (48), verse 15
“When you will set out to collect the spoils (of Khaybar), those who remained behind (in the march towards al-Hudaybiya) will say: ‘Allow us also to follow you.’ They seek to alter Allah’s Words. Say: ‘You shall by no means follow us. Allah said the same beforehand.’ So now they will say: ‘In fact, you are jealous of us.’ The truth is that they understand (the truth) but little.”
‘those who remained behind ‘
It is important to know the context of these verses. It would seems that those who had refused to support the Prophet now see him going to collect the spoils of war, and want to ‘jump on the bandwagon’.
‘Allow us also to follow you.’
Their attitude is not faith but greed. They do not understand the significance of the Prophet’s message. Indeed, their greed corrupts their minds, so they will ‘alter’ Allah’s Word. Honesty of intention is needed if the words are to be understood.
‘You shall by no means follow us’.
The Prophet is well aware of this danger, and therefore refuses to allow them to come and thereby alter the message of the Qur’an.
‘So now they will say: ‘In fact, you are jealous of us’
Their reaction is now to project onto the Muslims their own attitude. They are jealous of the Muslim success and so they now accuse the Muslims of being jealous of them.
‘The truth is that they understand (the truth) but little
This is all because they do not understand the message of the Qur’an.
In the following four verses, “the Word” (Kalam) is linked with ‘Isa (Jesus):
- Surah Al-‘Imran (3), verse 39:
“Whilst he was still standing in the chamber offering the Prayer (or supplicating) the angels called out to him: ‘Indeed, Allah gives you the good news of (a son) Yahya (John), who shall confirm Allah’s Word (i.e. ‘Isa [Jesus]), and he will be a leader, well-protected against (temptation for) women, and a Prophet from amongst (Our) exceptionally pious servants.”
‘in the chamber ‘
This recounts the annunciation to Zechariah. He is not in the Temple as in the Gospel of Luke, but in the ‘chamber’. What is this place? His own private room?
The angels give good news, but the word for ‘good news’ (baqlam) is not the same as the word for ‘glad tidings’ used in the verse we will consider shortly. The ‘good news’ to Zechariah is not the same as the ‘glad tidings’ given to Maryam.
‘who shall confirm Allah’s Word’
And again, the work of John is to confirm Allah’s word – but it is not clear exactly what ‘Allah’s word’ means. Is it Jesus or is it the Qur’an before its corruption by the Christians?
‘and he will be …’
The angels describe Yahya: he will be a leader, will be chaste and will be a prophet. He is one of the ‘pious servants’. This contrasts with the description of Jesus who is said to be an ‘intimate servant’, The word ‘intimate’ seems to indicate a grater closeness to Allah than the word ‘pious’. This difference emphasizes Jesus’ distinctiveness, compared to Yahya. The term ‘prophet’ is a high title.
- Surah Al-‘Imran (3), verse 45:
“When the angels said: ‘O Maryam (Mary), surely, Allah gives you glad tidings of a (particular) Word from Him named the Messiah, ‘Isa, the son of Maryam (Jesus, the son of Mary), who would be eminent and exalted, (both) in this world and in the Hereafter, and would be of those who are exceptionally intimate servants of Allah blessed with His nearness.”
‘a (particular) Word from Him named the Messiah, ‘Isa, the son of Maryam ‘
In this verse Jesus is given various titles. He is first called ‘a Word’, and then named ‘Messiah’ and then named ‘Isa’ and then named ‘son of Maryam’. The emphasis is therefore on the fact that Jesus is himself ’a word’. This is significant. Muhammad is not called ‘a word’ but delivers the words of Allah. The Qur’an is the Word of God (Kalam Ullah). So in a way the Qur’an and Jesus are being linked, not opposed nor contrasted. This would seem to tie in with the Prologue of the Gospel of John where Jesus is described as ‘the Word,’ (logos). The term Messiah does not have the strong sense in the Qur’an that it does in the Gospels.
‘the son of Maryam’
It is sometime held that women are not honored in Islam, but they certainly honored in the Qur’an.
‘eminent and exalted ….’
Isa is to be eminent and exalted both in this world and in the hereafter. This is not said of other prophets, and places Jesus once again at a high level. Is there a hierarchy of prophets, some being greater than others? It would seem that Jesus occupies a unique position, but this does not derogate from the role of Muhammad.
Jesus is an intimate of God, who has no equal but can have intimates.
- Surah Al-‘Imran (3), verse 59:
“Surely, the example of ‘Isa (Jesus) in the sight of Allah is the same as that of Adam whom He formed from clay, then said (to him): ‘Be.’ And he became.”
We did not have much to say on this verse except to say that the Qur’an is linking Adam and Jesus in such a way that Jesus is seen to be a creature, just as Adam is. Jesus ‘becomes’ as a result of a command from Allah. The Christian creed holds a different point of view and says that Jesus is non factum (‘not made’) but rather ‘begotten’.
- Surah Al-Nisa’ (4), verse 171:
“O People of the Book! Exceed not the limits in your din (religion), and speak nothing but the truth about Allah’s glory. The fact is simple that the Messiah, ‘Isa, the son of Maryam (Jesus, the son of Mary) is Allah’s Messenger and His Word which He conveyed to Maryam (Mary) and a Spirit from Him. So believe in Allah and His Messengers and do not say: ‘There are three (Gods).’ Refrain (from this belief); (that) is best for you. Verily, Allah is the Only One God, Holy is He, far above having a son. Whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth (all) belongs to him alone. And Sufficient is Allah as a Guardian.”
‘Allah’s Messenger and His Word’
This verse links up the terms ‘messenger’ and ‘word’. Jesus is both the messenger and the message. Muhammad is not called ‘a word’.
‘and a Spirit from Him’
The text goes on to say that Jesus is a ‘Spirit’. What is the meaning of the word Spirit? Should it even be written in capitals, for Arabic has no capitals? The ‘spirit of Allah’ is blown into the womb of Maryam. Is this comparable to the breath blown by God into the nostrils of the Adam whom He creates? More would need to be known about this word ‘breath’.
The point is made, however, that Mary conceives virginally, and that her conception is directly caused by Allah.
‘Do not say there are three.’
Jesus therefore has many titles, ‘word’, ‘messiah’, ‘spirit’, ‘messenger’, ‘intimate’.
To counter any possible misconception after this high praise, the text goes on to speak against any Trinitarian temptation. ‘There is the One, far above having a son’. Muhammad seems to be clearly speaking out against Christian Trinitarian teaching although there were also sets of three deities in the polytheistic pantheons of Arabia.
The sense is abundantly clear however, that Allah is to be the sole focus of worship.
[The above translations are from The Glorious Qur’an by Tahir-ul-Qadri)
The Mela Interfaith Group seeks to promote the bonds of friendship between members of different faith traditions in order to learn from each other’s spiritual experience and to journey together in peace and harmony. Among its purposes is to learn from each other’s sacred texts; and link our reflections to Christian texts. In keeping with this purpose, we have embarked on a series of discussions on verses of the Qur’an.
In attendance. Rev. Nick de Groot svd, (Director, Janssen Spirituality Centre); Mr Tom Thomas; Rev. Dr Merrill Kitchen; Rev. Dr John Dupuche (Senior Lecturer, MCD University of Divinity / Catholic Theological College; Honorary Fellow, Australian Catholic University)
Apologies. Dr Stewart Sharlow; Dr Herman Roborgh; Rev. Dr Jacob Kavunkal svd (Associate Professor, MCD University of Divinity / YTU);
Thanks: our thanks go to Dr Herman Roborgh for supplying these verses.