Dr. Mohammed El Samak, well-known in Lebanon for his role in inter-faith dialogue, was a July, 2010, guest on the Al Jazeera TV program Shariah and Life. The subject of the program was Muslim and Christian Coexistence.
Dr. Samak began the interview by saying that the Quran makes many favorable references to Christians, and quoted three of them. Surat Al Imran states, "Some of the People of The Scripture stand for the right; they quote the verses of God through the night while engaged in prayer (3:113)". Surat al-Maidah declares, "The strongest enemies of the Muslims are the Jews and the idolaters, and those closest to the Muslims are the Christians. That is because they include monks and priests, and they are not proud (5:82)." The same chapter says, "We sent Jesus and gave him the Gospel to confirm the Torah that came before him. Let the Christians judge by what God gave them (5:46,47)."
I noted here that Quranic verses quoted by Muslims as evidence of tolerance and coexistence towards non-Muslims often come from a textual context that teaches the exact opposite. This is the case in each of the three verses read by Dr. Samak.
The first one, verse 113 of Surat Al Imran, praised Christians who spent the night in prayer. What is the context of that ayah; that is, what is the theme of the passage from which it is taken? Verse 110 declares that Muslims are the best people ever created, in contrast to the rebellious and disobedient People of the Scriptures (the Jews and Christians). The next verse declares that the People of the Scriptures are cowards easily defeated in battle, and the verse following states they have incurred the wrath of God because they did not accept the Quran. Next comes the verse quoted by Dr. Samak, ayah 113, in which it is acknowledged that a minority of the Christians and Jews are not as reprehensible as the others. The verse immediately afterward concludes that these righteous People of the Book are those who followed the Prophet Muhammad. In other words, the only good Christians and Jews are those who become Muslims. All the others, according to ayah 116, will face the punishment of Hell.
What is the context of Dr. Samak's second quote, that says in al-Maidah verse 82 that those closest to the Muslims are the Christians? Ayah 72 of the same Surah declares that Christians are Kuffar for believing in the Divinity of Jesus. (Muslims often deny that the Quran describes Christians and Jews as Kuffar, but the Arabic verb used in this text unmistakedly indicates that they are). The following verses deny that Jesus was more than a Prophet, and declare that he cursed his own people for believing he was the Son of God. Hell will be the eternal abode of the Christians and the Jews, unless they accept the Prophet Muhammad and believe what was revealed to him. Next comes the verse quoted by Dr. Samak, acknowledging that some Christians espouse the values of loving-kindness and humility towards Muslims. The verse immediately after adds that these good Christians are those whose eyes overflowed with tears when they realized the true message of Muhammad, and the following verse agains warns that those who did not believe Muhammad would be the Dwellers of Hell. Again, as in the first example, the only good Christians are those who convert to Islam; all others are damned.
The final quote, ayahs 46 and 47 from al-Maidah, which states that "Christians should judge by what God gave them", comes just after a passage stipulating that the hands of both male and female thieves should be cut off (5:38). The Quran continues that Christians and Jews refused the message of Muhammad because they claimed they had their own messages. It acknowledges, in the verse quoted by Dr. Samak, that Christians who do not convert to Islam can live according to the dictates of their Gospel, but warns in the next ayah that these Christians will try to subvert Muslims and are not to be trusted. The section continues by warning Muslims not to take Christians or Jews as friends or allies, and declares that any Muslim who does so is no better than them.
Dr. Samak said many good things in the remainder of the interview. He reminded his Arab viewers that Christianity had existed there long before Islam, and that Christians were an indispensable part of the fabric of Arab society. He deplored the violence that targeted Christians in Iraq as well as parts of Egypt, and reminded his fellow Muslims that Christians in Arab countries often migrated to the West because of the professional ceilings placed over them in their own homelands.
What struck me, however, was that the favorable things said by Dr. Samak are because he is an educated human being, a humanitarian, not because he is a Muslim. As a follower of Muhammad, he is forced to recite verses from the Quran that presumably reinforce his positon, even though a child with a 6th grade education can read those same verses in context and realize they say the opposite of what Dr. Samak wants them to say.
There are two ways to look at both the Quran and the life of Muhammad. The first is to do as Dr. Samak did in this interview, to choose specific phrases from the Quran or selected stories from the life of Muhammad to prove the point the individual is trying to make. As with all religious texts, this is easy to do. One could even use this method to argue that the Bible teaches atheism, because a phrase taken from Psalm 14:1 says, "There is no God."
The other way is to look at the trajectory of the entire book, as well as that of Muhamad's entire life. It is difficult to deny that even though the first revelations claimed by Muhammad were religious in nature, the final revelations as exemplified in the Verses of the Sword in Surat al-Tauba (surah 9) are military actions against non-Muslims. It is also impossible to deny that during Muhammad's life the entire Jewish population of Medina, tribes who had lived there for centuries, were expelled or murdered simply for refusing to accept him as a Prophet, and that within a few years of his death all the Christians and Jews of Arabia were annihilated for the same reason.
I believe many Muslims are truly interested in the rights of non-Muslims living in Muslim countries and are aware of the limitations of these rights. I also believe these Muslims face a dilemma. As Muslims they must believe that Muhammad was a Prophet from God and the Quran is a text from God, and are unable to publicly criticize either. It's very difficult for them to look objectively at how their own Prophet and Sacred Texts treated non-Muslims, and as a result move in an opposite direction. In other words, comparatively few Muslims (although the number is dramatically increasing) have the courage and honesty to really leave Muhammad behind.