The high levels of Islamophobia expressed in vandalizing mosques, the debate over building a center in New York and the canceled burning of Qurans in Florida have led many pundits to misquote and misrepresent what’s in the Quran.
I have heard people say that the book advocates stoning women, the genocide of those refusing to convert, and war against unbelieving nations.
What I find ironic is that these accusations against the Quran are actually found in my Bible. Leviticus tells us that women, not men, who commit adultery are to be put to death. The book of Joshua calls for genocide and death to all infidels – men, women, children and livestock.
So what exactly does the Quran say?
Unlike those who keep misquoting it in order to frame Islam as some type of terrorist religion, I actually took the time to read it as a committed Christian seeking dialogue with those who are also seeking the face of God.
I discovered that the Prophet Muhammad, a central figure in Islam, showed a preferential option for the disenfranchised. He demonstrated great sympathy for orphans, widows, outcasts and poor, warning converts to stay away from the wealthy and powerful. The prophet was fond of saying, “my poverty is my pride.” Not surprisingly, Islam’s first converts were those from the humbler class.
Upon arriving at Medina, Muhammad’s party was called muhajirs, an Arabic word that refers to immigrants, outsiders. He knew what it was to be an outcast, a theme that resonates with me as a refugee in this country.
Asghar Ali Engineer, a Muslim liberation theologian, points out that the prophet, who came from among the poor, participated in a revolutionary quest to liberate the social conditions of his time by challenging the wealthy power structures in Mecca.
As I read the Quran, I discover that the book ties true worship (2:43,83) and true repentance (9:5,11) with the paying of the Az-zakah. The az-zakah is obligatory charity. Its purpose is to purify the human soul from the vices of greed, stinginess, covetousness and lustfulness while providing comfort to the poor by meeting the needs of the dispossessed and disenfranchised. Az-zakah is meant to provide protection for the weak from the oppressive economic reality of usury (2:276), and from the powerful who wish to devour their property (2:29; 4:2).
Those who exploit the poor are classified by the Quran as disbelievers (4:37; 9:34-35). Additionally, the Quran demands economic justice (55:8) as implied in the word jihad, which entails a struggle against wealth (4:95).
I found within Islamic tradition seeds for creating a society on earth that reflects Allah’s justice. Muslims are commanded to give sadaqa often, emphasizing discretion for the recipient’s feeling (2:271). Sadaqa can be translated as a voluntary charity, a concept expressed as any act of giving based on the believer’s compassion, love or generosity.
Besides the az-zakah and the sadaqa, one of the Five Pillars of Islam is the zakat, “almsgiving.” The believer is required to give a small percentage of one’s possessions to charity, generally to the poor and dispossessed.
The concept is similar to the Christian system of tithing, except it serves as a type of welfare contribution to poor and disenfranchised Muslims. This zakat also stresses generosity (9:60). In addition to the zakat, the faithful are obligated to perform the zakat al fitr (fast-breaking almsgiving) at the conclusion of Ramadan (2:184). The practice is connected with the pillar of Sawm (fasting in Ramadan) and acts as a purification of the fast itself.
The preferential option for the poor is also demonstrated during the “Festival of Sacrifice” commemorating the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God. According to the tradition, two-thirds of the feast meal is for family, friends and neighbors, and one-third is reserved as a gift for the poor.
I discovered a tradition that stresses that all are equal before Allah – la bedawi fil Islam (“there is no Bedouinism in Islam”). In other words, neither caste systems nor lineages exist.
A concerted effort is made to dispel racism and classism, as illustrated by the two unstitched white clothes worn during the hajj. During the pillar hajj, all who journey to Mecca wear the same cloth regardless of wealth or lack thereof. Prince and pauper worship Allah side by side with no indication of rank or status. A true celebration of diversity occurs during the hajj while overcoming barriers of caste, class and color.
Allah is never unjust (4:40); rather Allah demands justice (7:29; 49:9; 5:8) and forbids oppression, which is why numerous Quranic exhortations exist commanding believers to fight for the cause of the oppressed (4:74-76).
The ideal Islamic government can best be modeled on the caliph Abu Bakr’s words: “…the weak among you is strong in my eyes until I get justice for [them]…and the strong among you is weak in my eyes until I exact justice from [them].”
Obviously an entire faith tradition cannot be reduced to a short column. Nevertheless, any careful reading of the Quran reveals a faith that has a strong commitment to the poor and ties many of its rituals and religious obligations to meeting their needs.
Our Bible also calls us to remember the widow, orphan and alien (euphemism for the poor), but it seems we seldom do. Rather than demonizing Islam and the Quran, we Christians should remember the words of our Lord about removing the log from our own eye before attempting to remove splinters from the eye of our neighbors.
Miguel A. De La Torre is professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.