On Sept. 21, in a Coptic Orthodox conference in Egypt, Bishop Bishoy, head of the Coptic Church’s theological council, wondered whether some verses in the Quran were written during Muhammad’s life or might have been inserted later during the time of the Third Caliph, Uthman.
Bishoy was specifically concerned about the verses that identify Christians and Jews as infidels.
Among Muslims, the Caliph Uthman is best known for burning all the inauthentic copies of the Quran, preserving only the authentic text. Most Muslims believe that the Quran was given to Muhammad verbatim and inspired by the Archangel Gabriel. There is no inspired text after Muhammad.
Muslim reaction to Bishoy’s inquiry was intense. Al-Azhar, the world’s most authoritative university of Sunni Muslim scholarship, called for an irregular meeting of its Islamic Research Center to discuss the bishop’s statement. The Association of Islamic Lawyers organized a protest, in which a multitude of Muslims shouted hostile slogans against the church and the pope.
The leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Badia, spoke against the bishop’s inquiry, urging Muslims to stand against whoever insults or undermines the word of Allah or the Islamic prophet. After the major Muslim prayer on Friday, thousands of Muslims demonstrated in protest against what the “second man” in the Coptic Church dared to say.
The bishop’s statement was merely a question about certain verses that he believes contradict not only the notion of tolerance in Islam but also the Christian faith as a whole. The reaction of the Islamic community was intense and needs to be examined.
For about 14 centuries, most Muslim teachers have claimed that the Bible is corrupt. The authentic Christian text is not available anymore. They suggest that the Quran has abrogated all the previous messages or texts, including Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
The Coptic Church in Egypt used to discuss these claims only within church meetings, without protesting or issuing harsh statements against Muslim claims. Coptic Christians, in reality, cannot do these things in Egypt as they are a minority.
Yet ironically, when a Christian scholar questions the reliability of some verses in the Quran, a hellfire outrage sparks against Christians.
The anger toward Bishoy’s comments among Muslims was serious enough to force the Patriarch of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Shenouda III, to appear on Egyptian national television, announcing that he deeply regrets that Bishoy’s statement hurt Muslims’ feelings and agreeing with Al-Azhar’s earlier announcement. The official statement of Al-Azhar basically refuted the bishop’s statement and strongly affirmed that Egypt is a Muslim country.
When an American pastor intended to burn the Quran on Sept. 11, I was totally against that action. I wrote an EthicsDaily.com column that said “no” to burning the Quran because it would violate our Christian message as peacemakers.
However, the Muslim reaction to the bishop’s inquiry seems utterly unfair. If the Muslim community insists on being known as peaceful and tolerant, why does it turn around and respond harshly or violently against those who question or disagree with the Muslim faith?
In pondering this question, I would like to raise a few additional concerns.
First, the bishop’s statement was merely an inquiry. It was a question, and not a claim. Aren’t we supposed to ask and search for the truth? Is it OK to investigate the authenticity of the Bible, but never that of the Quran?
Second, how can an inquiry by a Christian scholar be understood as an attack on Islam? The bishop had an inquiry, which seems to be a logical historical question. However, the Muslim community reacted as if the bishop stated a claim or a fact.
Third, if any question about the Quran or the Islamic Prophet may cause a severe breakdown in peacemaking dialogue and present significant danger to Christians, should we just stop looking for the truth?
This latest incident in Egypt reveals a divide that is beginning to show within Islam globally. The voice of Al-Azhar seems to be in sharp dissonance with that of Muslim organizations in the West.
In the United States, when the “burn-a-Quran” saga was unraveling leading up to Sept. 11, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) issued a statement condemning in advance any violence that would be perpetrated by angry Muslims in the name of Islam. CAIR offered its constituency some resources for a peaceful response. CAIR encourages dialogue with Christians and works diligently to promote justice and mutual understanding.
In such challenging and confusing times for Muslim-Christian relations, there is a need for peacemakers. There is a huge need for key public figures to take the initiative to create a peaceful environment and a strong base of understanding between Muslims and Christians. One can only appreciate what Pope Shenouda III did when he apologized for the bishop’s statement in response to Muslims’ hurt feelings. He is a peacemaker.
Unfortunately, the Al-Azhar community in Egypt has not yet reached that point. Al-Azhar persistently represents Egypt as a Muslim country, creating obstacles for Egyptian Christians to engage in interfaith dialogue, affirming the minority status of Copts and portraying them merely as “guests” in Muslim lands.
The Muslim community globally needs to address its internal dissonance. Also, traditional Islamic institutions in the Muslim world, such as Al-Azhar, need to adjust to the requirements of global religious pluralism, as many of its counterparts have done outside the Muslim world.
Jesus said, “Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you… Do to others as you would like them to do to you” (Luke 6). As followers of Jesus, and especially in such times of crisis when it would be easy to capitulate to our inner frustrations, we need to persevere on the Jesus path, regardless of the way we are treated.
Ayman Ibrahim is a Christian from Egypt and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary.