Humantrustees.org aims to foster understanding and cooperation between Muslims and Christians so as to empower them to live up to their God-given calling as “trustees of the earth.” This Christian initiative seeks to accomplish this goal through scholarship, teaching, news commentary, and networking between scholars, members of both communities, and with anyone else who is passionate about peace and human flourishing.
David L Johnston  

David L Johnston

This is an excerpt from Earth, Empire and Sacred Text, found in Ch. 2, "Beyond Modernism: Time, Space and the Self." I believe Muslims and Christians, in order to make their dialog more productive, must take a serious look at the intellectual, economic, social and political context of our contemporary world. Since Muslims live predominantly in poorer countries (Arabian Gulf Arabs are a small minority!), they are naturally more concerned about the disparity of power between rich and poor states, and about how the current "neoliberal" capitalist system on a global scale works to maintain the status quo rather than to empower the weak.

Hence, my book leans on a multi-disciplinary approach that seeks to bring the social sciences and the humanities to bear on how best to understand the challenges ahead of those who want to make the world more just and peaceful. Here I use one of the most quoted authors in the humanities, British geographer and social theorist David Harvey, now Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York CUNY.

It’s funny how thoughts run around in our heads, bouncing off a particular memory, a conversation, or an article just seen on the web. Here’s my story about today. I think you’ll find it just as fascinating as I did.

 This morning in my Introduction to Islam class I was lecturing on Islamic art and architecture. I asked the students why they thought that Muslims turned to calligraphy and arabesque (which depicts either floral or geometrical designs) as their privileged art forms. One student answered, “Because the abstract arabesque points to the infinity of God.” “Ah,” I replied, “You obviously did your reading for today!” Whether it’s the tiles of the famous mosques in Cordova or Granada, or some of the decorations of the Taj Mahal in India, these abstract forms draw our eyes beyond the diversity of the created world around us to the divine unity that gave birth to it in the first place.

 Then while eating lunch in my office, I read an article on the BBC website, “Nobel Win for a Crystal Discovery.” Israeli Daniel Shechtman, from the Haifa Technion (their equivalent of our MIT) was just awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry, as a single researcher for his discovery of the structure of quasicrystals . . . a great story about a scientist whose research peers and superiors fiercely resisted, calling him an oddball, or worse, a deluded scientist going down a bunny trail.

 In 1982 he discovered a way to create quasicrystals in his lab at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Washington. First he heated up a combination of metals like manganese or aluminum and then squirted the molten mixture onto a cool surface. Then he sent an electron wave through this “grate”-like structure and observed how the metals' atoms refracted the wave.

 What he observed in his microscope dumbfounded him. The new elements looked like crystals, yet their structure was totally different. Crystals, as they multiply, repeat precisely their original form. These “quasicrystals,” however, were “made up of perfectly ordered, but never repeating, units.”

 Jennifer Carpenter, the author of the BBC article, had affixed the above picture to her piece –an arabesque from Islamic Spain. Further down she wrote,


“Irregular shapes, similar to what Dr Shechtman was seeing, are found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra Palace in Spain. The tiles that line the walls and floors of the palace are regular, and follow mathematical rules, but also never repeat themselves.”


 Bingo, I thought. We humans, as the apex of God’s marvelous creation, explore his universe in all directions. As God’s trustees on this earth we occasionally make astounding discoveries, just as Shechtman did, but we also create. Islamic art was a form of worship, as were those fabulous cathedrals at about the same time, or eastern icons after prayer and fasting.

 Then I thought about Islam and mathematics, and began to browse. I found an article by Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, who also writes a column on the Mathematical Association of America website. It was entitled, “The Mathematical legacy of Islam.”

 Beginning to read it, I was arrested by this bold statement: “As mathematicians, we are all children of Islam.”

 Much of what he said I had run across before. It’s true, the 9th-century Baghdad academy of science (“House of Wisdom,” directed, I should add, by a Nestorian Christian!) translated documents from the ancient Greeks, from the Indians, and from the Syriac scholars that preceded them.

 Then Devlin focuses on Al-Khwarizmi, astronomer to the Baghdad caliph, who was also a philosopher, scientist, theologian, and mathematician of note. Scholars at that time were “Renaissance men” long before the day! In any case, he wrote at least two books that set the course of mathematics later in Europe.

 About Al-Khwarizmi's first book Devlin comments:


“In particular, his book describing how to write numbers and compute with them using the place-value decimal system that came out of India would, when translated into Latin three hundred years later, prove to be a major source for Europeans who wanted to learn the new system.”

 The second one is entitled, “Kitab al-jabr w’al-muqabal” (“Book of restoration and compensation”). It was all about algebra – in fact algebra takes its name from this book title: al-jabr. Even more amazing is the origin of the word “algorithm” we use in math today. The Latin translations of al-Khwarizmi’s books began with “dixit Algorismi.” The name stuck, and was later used to refer to one kind of mathematical operation.

 Yes, I can see how we have all been impacted for good by the interfaith collegiality of Abbasid Baghdad or Islamic Spain (al-Andalus).

 So at the end of this tiring day, I still feel inspired by all these converging thoughts. Congratulations to Daniel Shechtman for his perseverance in the face of much opposition and ridicule! His discovery has made possible all kinds of wonderful applications in our daily lives. And God bless this year’s president elect of the American Chemical Society, Bassam Shakhashiri, who in the following comments given to the BBC on this Nobel Prize, would have made his Arab ancestor al-Khwarizmi proud:


"This is how we make progress in science. [If] someone comes up with a discovery that we are skeptical about…we [have to] take time to verify the observations and discuss the conclusions among ourselves. This is a really great example of the triumph of science. And an opportunity for all of us... who are curious about nature, to be vigilant, to be careful, and to engage in respectful debate about the interpretation of results."

 Let that “respectful debate” swell evermore from the far corners of the globe, and let human creativity flourish – under many religious labels – to the glory of the One Creator!

The Salam Institute for Peace and Justice (Washington, DC) is actively involved in conflict resolution between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in several parts of the world. Its co-founder and Executive Director, Mohammed Abu-Nimer, is the author of Nonviolence and Peace Building in Islam: Theory and Practice (University Press of Florida, 2003) and is Directorof the Peacebuilding and Development Institute at American University. He co-sponsored a series of two dialogs between Fuller Theological Seminary and the Salam Institute (of which I was a part) which resulted in the book, Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Lexington Books, reprint. ed., 2010).

[This was first posted on the Peace Catalysts Int'l website the week before 9/11 under the title, "Fear, Inc."]


The flames of suspicion, hate and fear swept over our country in the 1940s and 1950s, fanned by the zealous anti-Communist Senator from Wisconsin, mwo4meph McCarthy. Government employees, people from the entertainment industry, the unions and universities, were dragged before interrogation panels, some staged by the government, some privately sponsored. Thousands lost their jobs and reputations as a result, and hundreds were imprisoned. More gravely, the whole country was caught in a vortex of hysteria, mutual denigration and bitter debates.

The current campaign in the United States to vilify Muslims is certainly reminiscent of the McCarthyism of the 1950s. OK, it's not state-sponsored, and so it's on a smaller scale; but it's sure poisoning our public discourse, especially in this pre-election year.

If you don’t believe me, then just add up these phrases that bounce back and forth from the media, the blogosphere, and the lips of your neighbor next door:


  • “Practicing Muslims cannot be loyal Americans”
  • “There is no such thing as moderate Islam. Traditional Islam is radical Islam
  • “President Obama is a Muslim”
  • “Sharia is a threat to America”
  • “Mosques are Trojan Horses”
  • “Radical Islam has infiltrated America, the government and mainstream Muslim organizations”


These thoughts don’t just appear out of thin air. That is what a new study by a Washington think tank, Center for American Progress (CAP), is trying to show. Its 138-page report, “Fear Inc: Exposing the Islamophobia Network in America” (download here), points to seven foundations that together have contributed over $42 million in support of this campaign bent on exploiting the fear and ignorance of Americans about Islam after 9/11 (see Keith Olbermann’s interview of one of its authors).

Following the money trail is crucial, though never entirely possible. Yet at the very least, by exposing the funding traceable via IRS channels, the authors hoped that some of the donors would think twice about what they are funding. You can’t make Islamophobia disappear with a magic wand, but cutting off some of the money has got to help. And in fact, one of the foundations contacted CAP after the study was published, bitterly complaining that their name was associated with such illustrious merchants of hate. Bingo!

Sadly, lots of money is funneled through private foundations, corporations and individual donors, and often with precise political goals in mind. “Fear, Inc.” reveals that the top seven foundations typically give to conservative, right-wing causes and agents. The number one donor turns out to be The Donors Capital Fund, which in 2009, for instance, dispensed about $60 million for “mainstream conservative groups, none of which are Islamophobic” (p. 16). Yet from 2007 to 2009 they also distributed $21, 318, 600 to four of the most “islamophobic” organizations.

OK, so what is their definition of “islamophobia”? Actually, it’s a very helpful one: “an exaggerated fear, hatred, and hostility toward Islam and Muslims that is perpetuated by negative stereotypes resulting in bias, discrimination, and the marginalization and exclusion of Muslims from America’s social, political, and civic life” (p. 9). So it’s the reinforcement of “negative stereotypes” that 1) prey on existing fear and hostility toward Muslims, 2) by distorting and exaggerating aspects of Islamic beliefs and practices, 3) with the goal of discriminating against, stigmatizing and even excluding Muslims “from America’s social, political, and civic life.”

Who are these purveyors of hate and misinformation? They fall into four categories:


1. The pseudo-scholars and policy experts: here, five individuals share the responsibility for providing the catchy talking points (“mosques are a Trojan horse”). One of these, Frank Gaffney (see my blog “Sharia Conspiracy Theories”) uses his neoconservative think tank, The Centre for Security Policy, to broadcast a definition of “Sharia” no Muslim would recognize, but which allows him to state – rather ominously – that the Islamic sharia is the greatest totalitarian threat to US security. Next, lawyer and author David Yerushalmi’s rhetoric along the same lines has provided a backbone to the campaign in 23 states to outlaw Sharia (see my blog, “Sharia: Can It Be Outlawed?”). Add three more names: Steve Emerson’s overstated analysis of the “Islamic threat” by means of his think tank, The Investigative Project on Terrorism; Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum; and Robert Spencer (who has written the most books by far) and his website Jihad Watch.


2. Grassroots organizations and the religious right, providing “the muscle of the Islamophobia network” and successfully building on the momentum of the “Ground Zero Mosque” protest (which was neither a mosque nor at ground zero) in 2009-2010: at the top of the list is Lebanese-American Brigitte Gabriel, dubbed “a radical islamophobe” by the New York Times, who founded in 2007 Act! For America, which now boasts 573 chapters and 170,000 members worldwide. Its national Executive Director is former Christian Coalition strategist Guy Rodgers and its short-term goal is to turn fear of Islam into an electrifying tool in the upcoming presidential campaign so as to defeat President Obama. Another influential grassroots organization is Pamela Geller’s Stop Islamization of America, which in the words of the Anti-Defamation League “promotes a conspiratorial anti-Muslim agenda under the guise of fighting radical Islam” (p. 69). In the Religious Right category, you find John Hagee (Christians United for Israel), Pat Robertson (American Center for Law and Justice), and Ralph Reed (Faith and Freedom Coalition), and grassroots organizations like the Eagle Forum, American Family Coalition, and more recently, the Tennessee Freedom Coalition. Finally, some local Tea Party chapters have embraced Geller and Gabriel’s agenda.


3. Media outlets: these enable the mainstreaming of extremist rhetoric, and in particular, Fox News in network TV and radio personalities such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck. David Horowitz is also a major player in the field of Islam-bashing. His Freedom Center (founded in 1988), according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has “helped spread bigoted ideas into American life. Through his two online magazines (FrontPage and Jihad Watch, both directed by Robert Spencer), blog (NewsReal), Islamofascism Awareness Week organized on hundreds of US college campuses, his Wednesday Morning Club and his annual Restoration Weekend in Palm Beach, Florida (Michele Bachman and Newt Gingrich were among this year’s speakers), Horowitz provides the backbone of the anti-Muslim cottage industry.


4. The political players: Republican representatives Peter King (NY, who organized the congressional hearings on the radicalization of the US Muslim community) and Michele Bachman are among three other colleagues the study mentions as intentionally using the slogans and material of groups mentioned above.


Lest we think this is a harmless use of democratic free speech and lively political debating, perhaps we should ponder the fact that Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik in his rambling 1,500-page manifesto quoted Robert Spencer 162 times and Pamela Geller’s blog Atlas Shrugs 12 times. Hate speech can lead some people to act on it. Tragically, McCarthyism is making a comeback – and it has its clones in Europe too.

I believe we should applaud and support the interfaith, grassroots movement that is planning to use the tenth anniversary of 9/11 for bold acts of solidarity with the Muslim community – a community which, by the way, has incessantly denounced violence in the name of religion, and especially in this last decade (see the latest Pew Poll on American Muslims).

Finally, let me say as a Christian aspiring to follow Jesus who commanded love of enemy and embodied costly peacemaking: let’s use this opportunity to preach, pray, and implement the Father’s reconciling love on this Sunday morning, ten years after 9/11.

28 September 2011

The Common Word Letter

The 2007 letter by 138 global Muslim leaders and scholars addressed to the Pope and all Christian leaders was an historic initiative. Based on the premise that what unites Muslims and Christians is at the core of their respective faiths (love of God and love of neighbor), this was a call for the two communities of faith to work together to build a more peaceful world. It is part of a larger website, The Amman Message, which chronicles the most stunning show of Islamic unity in at least a millennium (2004-6). More than just a repudiation of all acts of terrorism, it was an effort a) to define who is a Muslim; b) to ban the practice of calling fellow Muslims apostates (takfir); c) and to agree on concrete benchmarks for those scholars/jurists who issue legal opinions (fatwas).

The Yale Center for Faith and Culture, founded by Professor Miroslav Volf, houses a "Reconciliation Program" run by my friend, mwo4meph Cumming, who founded and directed a women's health NGO for many years in Mauritania. Volf and Cumming hosted the first Muslim-Christian dialogue conference after the publication of the 2007 landmark letter to the Pope and all Christian leaders signed by 138 Muslim leaders and scholars from all over the world (The Common Word).

27 September 2011

Carl Medearis Website

Carl Medearis is a friend with years of residence in Lebanon, who is now in the forefront of Muslim-Christian reconciliation. Among his recent bestselling books are Muslims, Christians and Jesus, Tea with Hezbollah, and Speaking of Jesus.

Dr. Rick Love and his associates engage in a variety of peacebuilding activities all over the USA, mostly between Muslims and Christians. I contribute regularly to their blogs.

Recently I attended the first ever “Fair Trade Towns and Universities National Conference” in Philadelphia. There were lots of useful workshops and inspirational talks about how to take this growing movement to the next level. Grassroots mobilization, all agreed, was the key to making this happen.

Incidentally, my family and I moved to a little community in the southwest suburbs of Philadelphia in 2006. Hence, my connection to the University of Pennsylvania and my teaching at St. mwo4meph’s University. But also . . . my joining the Fair Trade Committee of neighboring Media, PA – North America’s first Fair Trade town! Hence, also, the location of the first national gathering of a movement that includes dozens of towns and now cities like Chicago, Milwaukee and Boston!

Having written about Muslims and Christians joining hands to make this planet more peaceful and just, you can imagine how I was eager to look into a strategy for tapping the purchasing power of rich nations to alleviate some root causes of poverty in the developing world. My conclusion: it really works – though admittedly, unfair trade is not the only cause of poverty nor is fair trade the only solution. Yet, leveling the playing field so that farmers, artisans, and producers of all kinds in poorer countries can export their products at a fair price – with an added “social premium” to boot – is already lifting thousands of communities in Africa, Latin America and Asia from poverty.

Poverty: as grinding and grim as ever

Why is this important? It turns out that the gap between haves and have-nots has been dangerously widening in the last three decades. Poverty is endemic to many parts of the world and, speaking personally, it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Consider the following statistics:


  • At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
  • The poorest 40 percent of the world’s population accounts for 5 percent of global income. The richest 20 percent accounts for three-quarters of world income.
  • According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day simply because their families are poor.
  • Around 28% of all children in developing countries are considered underweight or stunted. The two regions that account for the bulk of the deficit are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.
  • Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons could have sent all the world’s children to school by the year 2000 – sadly, we are still far from this goal.


Though some progress has been made since the UN’s launching of the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, much remains to be done, even beyond the appalling famine in and around Somalia this year.


What is poverty?

As the above list indicated, poverty is a lot more than lack of money. Here’s how the World Bank defines poverty – a definition most development specialists would agree with:


“Poverty is pronounced deprivation in well-being, and comprises many dimensions. It includes low incomes and the inability to acquire the basic goods and services necessary for survival with dignity. Poverty also encompasses low levels of health and education, poor access to clean water and sanitation, inadequate physical security, lack of voice, and insufficient capacity and opportunity to better one’s life.”


Stepping out of poverty, then, is about gaining the power to join the democratic process – having a voice in one’s family, community, and perhaps even beyond. For people of faith, it’s the right to fulfill one’s calling as a trustee of God’s good creation; to provide for one’s family and influence for good the direction of one’s community. In the end, and especially in the world of satellite TV and the social media, it means joining with people all over the globe to foster relationships of respect, friendship and love.


“Free” trade: anything but!

Admittedly, poverty reduction is a multi-faceted and complex subject. But considering that most developing countries have an abundance of agricultural and cottage-industry products to export, one would think that encouraging “free” trade is one sure-fire solution. Not so. And the reason is that most talk on the part of rich countries about “free trade” is very misleading.

Ben Cohen (of Ben & Jerry ice cream fame) at the Fair Trade conference emphasized just that point. Global trading could be “free” if all the partners had the same power. But that is not the case, so we need to use trade as an instrument of justice. Just two examples: first, rich countries have a large stake in the multinational corporations (from oil to construction, and from coffee to cleaning products) that flood poor countries with their products as they seek to expand their markets, usually undercutting the prices of local vendors and putting them out of business.

Second, you have these large firms come and hire locally, but end up creating “sweatshops,” hiring children, or banning organized labor – basically getting away with abuses they are banned from at home. Anything but “empowering”! Some of the speakers talked about “modern day slavery” in this context, and in some cases, this is completely accurate.

Let me insert the big picture (macro-economics) for a minute. Two main reasons that tip the balance of “free” trade in favor of the rich are:


1. Structural imbalances in international trade: the rich countries have, by and large, written the rules by which the World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Bank (WB) operate. Worse than that, because of their power, these same countries easily get away with flaunting those rules when it suits them. So adding insult to injury, the USA and Europe shower their farmers with generous subsidies, which means that African or Latin American growers of wheat, rice, or soy, cannot possibly compete with such low prices.

2. Structural adjustments imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whose mission is to lift developing nations out of debt and poverty, carry with them “neoliberal” (or “pro-business”) policies. In practice this means means a mandate to . . .

      • reduce government spending on health, education and development
      • privatize gas, water and other utilities
      • spend more money on paying off their debt to the World Bank


Structural adjustment only widens the gap between rich and poor, while fanning the flames of social unrest. Especially as we continue to cope with the fallout of the Great Recession, it’s good to read the opinion of people like Nobel Prize laureate economist mwo4meph Stiglitz, who along with others is urgently calling for a new, revamped capitalism on a global scale (Freefall: Free Markets, and the Sinking Global Economy, 2010).

Notice how in the Preface of his book he sees the solution in reducing the imbalance of producers and consumers:


“The global trade imbalances that marked the world before the crisis will not go away by themselves. In a globalized economy, one cannot fully address America’s problems without viewing those problems broadly. It is global demand that will determine global growth, and it will be difficult for the United States to have a robust recovery – rather than slipping into a Japanese-style malaise – unless the world economy is strong. And it may be difficult to have a strong global economy so long as part of the world continues to produce far more than it consumes, and another part – a part that should be saving to meet the needs of its aging population – continues to consume far more than it produces.”


What can I do?

Now back to the micro level of economics – where you and I as consumers can truly make a difference. One of the sponsors of the conference Ten Thousand Villages, who seek to create opportunities for artisans in 35 countries, by helping to organize them and, if necessary, providing them with the needed training and tools We heard the story of a group of 30 to 40 leper women in India who are now sewing a line of products that are selling well in the US. That means, of course, that they work on both sides of the equation: empowering the producers and expanding the potential market of consumers.

Another sponsor was Green Mountain Coffee, a company that has been doing “fair trade” for a couple of decades. One of their managers spends his time visiting coffee farmers in Central America and seeing how his company can improve their lives. One of the realities that depressed him again and again was that typically these rural farmers and their families struggle to even feed themselves from three to eight months a year. Yet the good news is that by joining a cooperative sanctioned by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO), they obtain the following benefits, which has literally turned their lives around, as families and whole communities alike:


  1. a fair price for their products (with a guaranteed minimum in advance)
  2. a 10% “social premium” to be spent on education, female empowerment, healthcare, or any other way that will benefit the community (decisions are made on the cooperative level)
  3. a chance to learn first hand how democracy works and to make a difference


“Fair Trade” is about empowering communities in the developing world through our own insisting – we, the consumers – that they receive proper value for their labor and production. Along with this very simple principle (insuring a “fair” price), these are some other values the Fair Trade movement promotes:


  • Fair labor conditions: freedom of association, safe working conditions, and living wages – strictly no child labor!
  • Direct trade: eliminating unnecessary middlemen and enabling farmers to compete in the global marketplace.
  • Democratic and transparent organizations: farmers and farm workers decide democratically how to invest their Fair Trade revenues.
  • Community development: the Fair Trade premiums can also be used toward scholarship programs, quality improvement trainings, and organic certification. Usually farmers get a 10% advance up front, with an additional 10% going to the cooperative benefiting the whole community.
  • Environmental sustainability: banning harmful agrochemicals and GMOs in favor of farming methods that protect farmers’ health and safeguard precious ecosystems for future generations.

All said and done, “Fair Trade” (forget “Free Trade”!) is an effective means of alleviating poverty worldwide. Then, lifting people out of poverty is to empower them to join civil society locally and globally. And finally we the consumers, by deciding to buy “fair trade” whenever possible, can ensure that we, along with the producers and artisans, are better trustees of the earth. To this agenda people of all faiths – and no faith – can subscribe.

His hands still bloody from bludgeoning his brother and hastily burying him, Cain, son of Adam, hurried home. Yet the satisfaction of getting rid of his life’s biggest nuisance was now, ever so slightly, eroded by an edginess he couldn’t pin down. Suddenly, a voice out of nowhere – yet a voice he instinctively recognized – rang in his ear. “Where is your brother, Cain?” He angrily retorted, “O God! Am I my brother’s keeper?” 

The Bible’s storyline is about a God who creates a dazzling world and places one creature at its pinnacle – the only one fashioned in his own image –with the mission to care for it. Yet right from the start that crazy gamble looks doomed, and things go from bad to worse. In the end, though, he decides to come down as a man who sacrifices his own perfect life so that humankind can be redeemed from sin, death and hell. Jesus embodies on the cross the man who truly became not only his brothers’ and sisters’ keeper, but also their savior. 

There’s no redeemer story in the Qur’an, though the Prophet, in popular piety, functions like a perfect man who intercedes for the faithful on the Last Day. Having said that, the creation narrative is remarkably similar. God announces to the angels that he is placing Adam as his trustee on earth, or his representative. The angels protest. Why would God empower creatures as stewards of his world, who clearly have the potential to “sow mischief and shed blood” (Q. 2:30)? In both Bible and Qur’an God takes an enormous risk by empowering humanity as his vicegerents. 

From the start, then, humanity is honored. In Genesis 1:27 both men and women are made in God’s image, while several well-attested hadiths (sayings about what the Prophet said and did) teach that Adam was created in the image of the Merciful. So in light of this, as deputies of the Most High, fashioned in his image, our first priority is to care for people everywhere, while we also remember to care for the earth and its myriad creatures. Put otherwise, we seek to preserve the balance and health of the earth’s ecosystems so as to benefit everyone equally.


 Cain and Abel revisited 

  Now back to Cain and Abel, whose story is also told in the Qur’an, though not by name. Here Cain’s crime is used as a lead-in, a) to a statement about the Mosaic Law and murder; and b) to a legal section on murder and sedition. Here’s the key verse, quoted again and again since 9/11, as proof that Islam does not condone violence: 


“We ordained for the Children of Israel that if anyone killed a person not in retaliation of murder, or (and) to spread mischief in the land - it would be as if he killed all mankind, and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of all mankind” (Q. 5:32). 


Unless it is capital punishment for murder or violent rebellion, the killing of another person is like killing all humanity, and saving one person is akin to saving all humanity. Human life is sacred and all human beings are endowed with the same dignity, regardless of race, class or religion – at least, this represents the view of most every Muslim scholar today.


 A comment on hermeneutics, polemics, and interfaith dialog

 I could leave it at that, but if you googled “as if he had killed all of mankind,” you would discover that there is a great deal of Internet chatter on this issue. I will comment on three issues that flow out of this debate and then conclude. 


1. Islamophobia is alive and well and this verse is an easy target. Probably the best example is by an author calling himself “Atheist Jabali” (“Killing all Humanity: How Obama Misinterprets Quran 5:32 and Passes a Noble Jewish Teaching as Islamic). The tone is obviously polemical, and as such, much of what he says can easily be countered. Take his point about Obama quoting wrongly, “whoever kills an innocent.” True, it’s not a literal translation, but it is still faithful to the original verse – the case of a murderer or someone guilty of armed rebellion is excluded from the start. But he does raise an interesting question about the context of the verse, which is rarely quoted in its entirety. It is about what God taught the Israelites, presumably through the Law of Moses. Yet if you look for this idea in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), you won’t find it. You have to go to the Talmud to find such a reference – he’s right. As it turns out, the Hebrew original has the “blood” spilled in the plural. So in the commentary of the Tractate Sanhedrin, Chapter 4, of the Talmud, we read:


“The voice of the 'bloods' of thy brother are crying unto me from the ground. It does not read ‘blood’, but ‘bloods’, which means his blood and the blood of his descendants. [According to others it reads ‘bloods’ in the plural, because his blood was scattered all over the trees and stones.] Therefore the man was created singly, to teach that he who destroys one soul of a human being, the Scripture considers him as if he should destroy a whole world, and him who saves one soul of Israel, the Scripture considers him as if he should save a whole world.”


This is the closest possible source for the qur’anic assertion of Q. 5:32. Could there be other possible biblical interpretations of this verse? Of course, and there have been. But we are simply describing what turns out to be the case with all sacred texts: a multiplicity of voices and perspectives, constantly evolving with the changing times. 


2. Respect the way devotees interpret their own sacred texts. This is a cardinal rule of interreligious dialog. I did some poking around classical commentaries in Arabic and English and nobody seemed to care whether this saying came from the Bible or not. The Qur’an said God taught it to the Jews – end of matter. The only issue raised (and sometimes this verse was simply glossed over) was how killing one person could be killing all humankind. The fourteenth century commentator Ibn Kathir offers this simple explanation, “because there is no difference between one life and another.” But there is more than meets the eye here, as my next statement makes clear.


3. Nevertheless, you will have to draw a line in the sand. On the one hand, as an outsider, for me the vast majority of qur’anic interpretation is simply to observe and compare. I evaluate it only in relation to other views and as a scholar I do my best to catalog different currents of thought. Some issues, on the other hand, touch on human rights and can lead to discrimination, hostility and even violence. And, it turns out, some people devote their whole career to focus on the very worst of elements of the Islamic tradition (see my blog McCarthyism Returns in the 2010s). But in the interest of a fair-minded dialog between Christians and Muslims, and for the benefit of all my readers, I have to point out problem areas, as many of my Muslim colleagues do as well.

For instance, the above-mentioned Ibn Kathir cites one early commentator, Sa’id bin Jubayr, who understands the verse to mean this:


“He who allows himself to shed the blood of a Muslim, is like he who allows shedding the blood of all people. He who forbids shedding the blood of one Muslim, is like he who forbids shedding the blood of all people.” 


This narrowing down of the scope of whose murder is equivalent to the murder of all humanity is understandable at the time (the Abode of Islam was theoretically and practically at war with the rest of the world, the Abode of War), but it would be problematic nowadays. After all the genocides of recent history – before and after the issuing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we dare not as people of faith open any loophole that would make some people less “human” than others.

My colleague in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at the St. Joseph's University, Rabbi Alan Iser, did a search for me in the Talmud. His conclusion was that this passage was also interpreted by the majority of Jewish scholars over the ages as only applying to the shedding of "Jewish" blood.

 The islamist ideologue Sayyid Qutb, who was the chief propagandist for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early 1950s, turned much more radical than the mainstream of the Brotherhood and led a faction while in prison that later developed into the so-called “jihadis” of today. The starting point was to restrict the above-mentioned human trusteeship to the Muslim community (I covered this in Earth, Empire and Sacred Text). The next step was to hark back to the classical notion of jihad and the dualistic vision of the world that went with it. Here is Qutb’s interpretation of this passage on Adam’s two sons in his monumental commentary, In the Shade of the Qur’an:


“The law given to the Children of Israel included this principle which equates the life of any human being with every life. The right to life is applicable to all. Hence, killing one person is an aggression against the right to live in which all people stand equal.” 


No problem here. But in the next paragraph, we plunge into a different world altogether:


“It should be clarified here that this rule applies to people in the land [Abode] of Islam, whether Muslim or not, as long as they are living under the rule and protection of the Islamic authority. As for those who are in a land hostile to Islam [Abode of War], neither their lives nor their properties are protected unless they have concluded a peace treaty with the land of Islam. This legislative rule should be well remembered. We should also remember that the land of Islam is that in which the rule of Islam prevails and Islamic law is implemented. The hostile land is that which does not implement Islamic law.”


As you can see, this kind of interpretation leads to declaring, a) leaders of Muslim nations as unbelievers (kafir) and therefore targets for assassination; b) fellow Muslims who deny one’s islamist vision as kafir; c) current governments as anti-Islamic and in need of toppling, making way for the imposition of strict shari’a law (however interpreted).


 A Muslim-Christian declaration of human solidarity

 This is a far cry from the recent Muslim initiative at the very highest level from all corners of the Islamic world – the Common Word letter, which begins thus:


“Muslims and Christians together make up well over half of the world’s population. Without peace and justice between these two religious communities, there can be no meaningful peace in the world. The future of the world depends on peace between Muslims and Christians.”

The basis for this peace and understanding already exists. It is part of the very foundational principles of both faiths: love of the One God, and love of the neighbour.”


After all, the foundational narrative in both traditions begins with the human being created as God’s trustee on the earth – a great honor and a grave responsibility. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” asked Cain sarcastically. “Indeed you are!” came the response indirectly. In fact, as a punishment for the “bloods” spilled into the ground, he wandered a fugitive for the rest of his life.

To kill another human being is like killing all, and to save one, is like saving all. Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, all of us, wherever we may be scattered on the face of the earth or on the spectrum of social statuses, we are all of equal value in God’s eyes.