Nicholas Kristof’s errors with his latest article – Test Your Savvy on Religion

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Nicholas Kristof wrote an eye-opening article "Test Your Savvy on Religion", New York Times, October 9, 2010, on religion for many westerners. He asked 13 questions to test knowledge of his readers. The questions are:

1. Which holy book stipulates that a girl who does not bleed on her wedding night should be stoned to death?
a. Koran
b. Old Testament
c. (Hindu) Upanishads

2. Which holy text declares: “Let there be no compulsion in religion”?
a. Koran
b. Gospel of Matthew
c. Letter of Paul to the Romans

3. The terrorists who pioneered the suicide vest in modern times, and the use of women in terror attacks, were affiliated with which major religion?
a. Islam
b. Christianity
c. Hinduism

4. "Every child is touched by the devil as soon as he is born and this contact makes him cry. Excepted are Mary and her Son.” This verse is from:
a. Letters of Paul to the Corinthians
b. The Book of Revelation
c. An Islamic hadith, or religious tale

5. Which holy text is sympathetic to slavery?
a. Old Testament
b. New Testament
c. Koran

6. In the New Testament, Jesus’ views of homosexuality are:
a. strongly condemnatory
b. forgiving
c. never mentioned

7. Which holy text urges responding to evil with kindness, saying: “repel the evil deed with one which is better.”
a. Gospel of Luke
b. Book of Isaiah
c. Koran

8. Which religious figure preaches tolerance by suggesting that God looks after all peoples and leads them all to their promised lands?
a. Muhammad
b. Amos
c. Jesus

9. Which of these religious leaders was a polygamist?
a. Jacob
b. King David
c. Muhammad

10. What characterizes Muhammad’s behavior toward the Jews of his time?
a. He killed them.
b. He married one.
c. He praised them as a chosen people.

11. Which holy scripture urges that the "little ones" of the enemy be dashed against the stones?
a. Book of Psalms
b. Koran
c. Leviticus

12. Which holy scripture suggests beating wives who misbehave?
a. Koran
b. Letters of Paul to the Corinthians
c. Book of Judges

13. Which religious leader is quoted as commanding women to be silent during services?
a. The first Dalai Lama
b. St. Paul
c. Muhammad

His answers are:

1. b. Deuteronomy 22:21.
2. a. Koran, 2:256. But other sections of the Koran do describe coercion.
3. c. Most early suicide bombings were by Tamil Hindus (some secular) in Sri Lanka and India.
4. c. Hadith. Islam teaches that Jesus was a prophet to be revered.
5. All of the above.
6. c. Other parts of the New and Old Testaments object to homosexuality, but there’s no indication of Jesus’ views.
7. c. Koran, 41:34. Jesus says much the same thing in different words.
8. b. Amos 9:7
9. all of them
10. all of these. Muhammad’s Jewish wife was seized in battle, which undermines the spirit of the gesture. By some accounts he had a second Jewish wife as well.
11. a. Psalm 137
12. a. Koran 4:34
13. b. St. Paul, both in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2, but many scholars believe that neither section was actually written by Paul.

While I am appreciative of Kristof’s attempt to clear many such commonly held misconceptions, he made some errors with his answers. Here are my corrections:

1. Muslims pronounce their Holy Scripture as the Qur’an, which should have been used by the author for better accuracy.

2. Contrary to his opinion about Q. 2 there is not a single verse in the Qur’an that prescribes coercion in matters of religion. Allah (God of the Qur’an) leaves the choice to either accept or reject Islam to human beings, although He warns those that reject Islam as the final revelation with dire consequences in the Hereafter.

3. Kristof’s remarks on Q. 5 vis-à-vis Islam are not accurate. While the Qur’an, like both the so-called Old and New Testament, does not explicitly abolish slavery, it is unique in providing the basis for emancipation and elimination of slavery. See, for instance, the Surah al-Balad (ch. 90), verses 12-18, in which Allah says, "Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent (rising to higher status in Islam, a sure recipe for entering Paradise) is: It is to free a slave, and to feed in the day of hunger an orphan near of kin or some poor wretch in misery, and to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance and exhort one another to pity." And there are many such verses (see, e.g., 4:92, 5:89, 58:3, 90:13, 24:33, 9:60, 2:177, 2:221, 4:25, 4:36.) and prophetic hadith (sayings) that required believing Muslims to freeing slave as a remission of their sins.

It is not difficult to understand why the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad (S), not only freed his slaves from his wife’s side (Khadija) but also encouraged his companions to win their freedom. Muhammad (S) bought freedom of 63 former slaves, A’isha (RA) 67, Abbas (RA) 70, Abdullah ibn Umar (RA) 1000 and Abdur Rahman ibn Awf 30,000. It was these freed slaves of Islam that became the flag-bearers of Islam. Bilal, the Abyssinian, became the first Mu’addhin (caller to prayer) in Islam, a position next only to the Imam during the salat, one of the most important pillars of Islam. To break the aristocratic arrogance of the pagan time the Prophet’s own cousin sister, born to Quraysh aristocracy, was married to his freed slave, Zaid ibn Haritha (RA). In his deathbed, Muhammad (S) appointed Usama, the son of Zaid, to become the leader of the expedition against the Byzantine empire that had gathered a large army to attack Muslim territories to the north in Syria. Muslim history is replete with examples of freed slaves that became the rulers and marrying into kings’ daughters and sisters.

The interested reader may like to read my articles "Anatomy of Racism"[1] and "Islam and the question of slavery" that were posted in the Media Monitors Network and al-Jazeerah websites in 2005 and 2006, respectively.

As to Kristof’s answer to Q. 10, many scholars have dwelt upon the subject of Muhammad’s (S) treatment of Jews. It is a highly controversial subject. Suffice it to say that the prophet Muhammad (S) was more merciful to the Jews of Madinah than the prophet Moses (AS) was to his own community when they rebelled against him and committed blasphemous activities. The interested reader may like to read Dr. Rafiq Zakaria’s book – Muhammad and the Quran, Penguin Books (1992).

Kristof’s answer to Q. 12 also shows his misreading of the Qur’anic verse. No, the Qur’an does not endorse beating wife for insubordination. If the wife shows disloyalty and ill-conduct towards her husband, the steps in sequence are – (1) verbal advice or admonition, (2) separating bed so as to suspend sexual relation, (3) have sexual intercourse (so as to win her over), and if that too fails to reconcile, then (4) a family council that is comprised of two arbiters, one from each family with the intention of setting things aright (5:34-35). I am, however, aware of the fact that because of a misinterpretation with the Arabic word in the Qur’an, some translators have mistakenly assumed that the third option means scourge, or light beating.

As it is well-known, rather than relying on the classical Arabic of the Qur’an to understand a verse simply relying on a mistranslation in English or other language can sometimes be problematic. This problem is also quite acute with many old scriptures that are open to so many interpretations.

Note:

[1]. http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/12338/

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