A discussion has recently taken place in the Egyptian media regarding the interpretation of the last two verses (verses 6 and 7) of the Fatiha, the opening surah of the Quran. These verses state: "[Allah,] Guide us to the straight path, the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have incurred [Your] wrath or of those who are astray." According to the common interpretation of these verses,[i] the phrase "those upon whom You have bestowed favor" is taken to refer to the Muslims, while the phrases "those who have incurred [Your] wrath" and "those who are astray" are said to refer to the Jews and the Christians, respectively.
The discussion in the Egyptian media was sparked by an investigative article published January 27, 2017 in the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm. The article, by journalist Mu'ataz Nadi, stated that booklets handed out at funerals and in mourning tents in Egypt repeat this interpretation that refers negatively to the Jews and the Christians, even though renowned religious scholars, such as 19th-century religious reformist Muhammad 'Abduh and others, claimed that it is false.
Several Egyptian journalists responded with articles that supported Nadi's view, rejecting the interpretation that appears in the booklets and rebuking clerics, especially Al-Azhar, for allowing the publication of such materials that they said spread extremism. They added that the booklets are yet another indication of the urgent need to reform the religious discourse.[ii]
The following are excerpts from the Al-Masri Al-Yawm article and from articles that responded to it.
Al-Masri Al-Yawm Article: Booklets Circulated In Egypt Interpret The Fatiha As Referring Negatively To Christians And Jews
Mu'taz Nadi's article, titled "Interpretations of the Fatiha – From Muhammad 'Abduh to Mourning Booklets," notes that booklets handed out at funerals and mourning tents "contain various interpretations that present any Christian who comes to comfort [the family] as 'one who is astray.'" It states further that the interpretation appearing in the booklets, which refers negatively to Christians and Jews, also appears on a website of King Saud University in Riyadh as part of a hadith by 'Adi bin Hatim, one of the Prophet's companions. This interpretation, he says, is still commonly cited "even though over a century has passed since Muhammad 'Abduh,[iii] who served as the mufti of Egypt and was one of the pioneers of religious reform and renewal in his generation, [published a different] interpretation of the last two verses of the Fatiha"...
Commentary on Quran 1:7, explaining that "those who have incurred [Your] wrath" refers to the Jews and "those who are astray" refers to the Christians (image: Al-Masri Al-Yawm, Egypt, January 27, 2017)
Explaining 'Abduh's interpretation in detail, Nadi states that, according to 'Abduh, the phrase "those upon whom You have bestowed favor" refers not to the Muslims but to "the Prophets, the righteous, the martyrs and the decent men among the ancient nations." As for the phrase "those who have incurred [Your] wrath," it refers to "those who abandoned the path of truth after they knew it, [namely] those who were informed about Allah's jurisprudence and religion but rejected it," while the phrase "those who are astray" refers to people who never received the message of Islam, or who misunderstood it. Thus, in 'Abduh's interpretation, none of the phrases refer to the followers of any particular faith. Nadi notes that this interpretation was endorsed by other prominent Islamic scholars as well, such as Muhammad Metwali Al-Sha'rawi (1911-1998), who served as Egypt's minister of endowments,[iv] Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy (1928-2010), who was sheikh of Al-Azhar.[v]
The article also quotes Dr. Muhyi Al-Din Al-'Afifi, director of Al-Azhar's Academy of Islamic Studies, as saying: "The interpretation spread by [these] mourning booklets is at odds with what is said in the Quran, for the Honorable Quran mentions the Christians, and Allah the Almighty said of them [in Quran 5:82]: 'You will find the nearest of [mankind] in affection to the believers those who say, "We are Christians." That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant.'[vi] 'Afifi called upon Al-Azhar to examine various interpretations, especially of the Quran, that are spread in Egypt, and amend them.[vii]
Interpretation of Quran 1:7 in Tafsir Al-Jalalayn likewise refers to the Jews and Christians
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Egyptian Writers: Religious Establishment Allows Extremist Interpretations Of The Quran
As noted, Nadi's article sparked responses from other Egyptians who said that the interpretation of the Fatiha as referring to the Jews and Christians is wrong and that alternative interpretations proposed by enlightened sheikhs should be upheld. These writers criticized Egypt's religious establishment, especially Al-Azhar, for allowing these interpretations to be published.
Al-Masri Al-Yawm Owner: Why Are Enlightened Interpretations Rejected In Favor Of Extremist Ones?
Salah Diab, the owner and founder of Al-Masri Al-Yawm, who writes under the pen-name Newton, also addressed this topic in a January 27, 2017 article, titled "Rebuke." Newton noted that the booklets which contain this interpretation bear a certificate of approval by Al-Azhar, which suggests that Al-Azhar approves this interpretation, which appears in them, and directed criticism at the Sheikh of Al-Azhar for this. He wrote: "Every person has a moral duty to extend condolences to the bereaved. The older we get, the more such visits we make. In most funerals I attend these days, it is customary to give mourners a copy of the Quran as they leave, and I therefore have a whole pile of Qurans. In other cases one is given a booklet containing a few surahs from the Quran, the first of which is the Fatiha. On the margins of each page of these booklets is some commentary, and the back cover bears a photo of an Al-Azhar certificate approving the publication of the booklet, so that various libraries can circulate it.
"The Fatiha, which we recite several times as part of our daily prayers, is easy to understand and requires no explanation, and therefore it never occurred to me to look for an interpretation and I never looked at the margins [of the page] bearing these verses... [But] at the last funeral I attended, I happened to run across a school mate of my son's, who is Christian. After greeting me, he told me with a smile, referring to the interpretation of the Fatiha on the margins [of the booklet], that the words 'those who have incurred [Your] wrath' are said to refer to the Jews, whereas the words 'those who are astray' are said to refer to the Christians. I was amazed, and apologized to him, [saying] that [the authors of the booklet] are ignorant and do not understand what they are doing, and [then I] returned to my car, embarrassed.
"Who are 'those who have incurred [Allah's] wrath'? Perhaps it is those who blew up St. Peter's Church [in Al-'Abassiya in December 2016]?[viii] Are they not the ones deserving of wrath? [Or perhaps other] murderers, or people who abuse their parents? Does not the [Muslim] religion describe such people as deserving of punishment? Or does this [phrase] refer only to our Jewish brethren? And what about a Muslim who deviates from the directives of his faith and drinks alcohol, fornicates and gambles – is he not worthy of the description 'one who is astray'? Or does his faith render him immune, regardless of his behavior and [how much] suffering it causes others? Does one have to be a Christian to merit this description?
"I do not know much about religion and I do not purport to be an expert on religious exegesis. But the interpretation that appears [in the booklet] is apparently approved by Al-Azhar, whose certificate appears on the back cover. Why do they reject enlightened interpretations in favor of extremist ones? Why do we discard the enlightened approach of the two noble sheikhs, Imam Muhammad 'Abduh and Sheikh Mahmud Shaltut, who was Sheikh of Al-Azhar in 1958-1963? Both of them said that 'those who incurred [Allah's] wrath' and 'those who are astray' could be Muslim, Jewish or Christian, and that the phrases do not refer to the followers of any particular faith. Why do we discard these moderate ideas?...
"At a time when we speak of renewing the religious discourse, so that all faiths lead to [the goal] for which they descended, which is [promoting] peace, coexistence, compassion and acceptance of the other, I cannot but convey a certain [message of] rebuke to our honorable Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmad Al-Tayeb..."[ix]
Egyptian Journalist: The Existence Of Different Interpretations Underscores The Need To Reform The Religious Discourse
On January 29, 2017, two days after the publication of Nadi's article, Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, a columnist for the government daily Al-Ahram, praised Nadi's article and stated that Quranic interpretations should be reexamined in light of "the impressive and respectable legacy of esteemed [Islamic] reformists." He wrote: "The excellent investigative article by Mu'ataz Nadi... fascinated me... What did my colleague [Nadi] find in his review of the mourning booklets? He found a copy of the Fatiha with commentary on verse 7... [stating that] 'those who incurred [Allah's] wrath' refers to the Jews, whereas 'those who are astray' refers to the Christians. When my colleague looked into this interpretation, he found that it [also] appears on the website of King Saud University [in Riyadh], but that it is different from the interpretations [proposed by] Sheikh Muhammad 'Abduh, Sheikh Muhammad Metwali Al-Sha'rawi, and the late Sheikh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawy.
"Trying to get to the bottom of this, I turned to some sources I have, such as Al-Muntakhab, a [modern] compilation of Quranic commentaries published by [Al-Azhar's] Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs. The 18th edition [of this book], from 1995, says that 'those who incurred [Allah's] wrath' and 'those who are astray' refers to 'those who merit Allah's wrath and who strayed from the path of good and of truth because they rejected faith and obedience' (p. 1). However, this is different from what appears in the ancient commentary by [eighth-century Syrian Quranic exegete] ibn Kathir, which says that 'those who incurred [Allah's] wrath' are the Jews, and 'those who are astray' are the Christians. This interpretation also appears on the Ahl Al-Sunnah website.
"So what does this mean, keeping in mind that we are talking not about the [Quranic] text [itself] but about its interpretation? It means that the issue of reforming the religious discourse is broader and deeper than we think, and we should address it by means of a well-planned academic program, especially [given] that we have [at our disposal] the impressive and respectable legacy of esteemed reformists. All that is left for the relevant authorities to do is monitor what appears in the booklets themselves..."[x]
[i] See e.g. the popular classical commentaries Tafsir Al-Tabari, by Abu Ja'far Ibn Jarir Al-Tabari (838-923), who was one of the first Quranic exegetes, and Tafsir Al-Jalalayn, by Jalal Al-Din al-Mahalli (1389-1459) and his student Jalal Al-Din Al-Suyuti (1445–1505).
[ii] It should be noted that this issue has been debated in the past by Egyptian clerics and media. Islamic preacher Mabrouk 'Atiyya said at a December 18, 2016 event at the Dar Al-'Uloum faculty of Cairo University that, contrary to the opinion of many Islamic scholars, the verse does refer to Christians and Jews, and "whoever interprets it this way understands nothing." He added: "The Quran makes positive mention of Christians and [Allah] ordered [the believers] to be kind to them. How could the Quran speak positively of certain people and [at the same time] call them 'those who are astray ' [or] 'those who have incurred [Allah's] anger'?" (cairoportal.com, December 18, 2017). Egyptian media figure Tamer Amin referred to this issue on a December 2016 television program. He noted that he was amazed to hear that an Egyptian sixth-grade textbook on Islam likewise explains that "those who are astray" in the Fatiha refers to the Christians. He added that the textbook thus presents every religion except Islam as a false religion, and that "this is the way to cultivate [future] terrorists." He concluded that, "if [this claim about the textbook] is true, it is a disaster" (tahrirnews.com, December 12, 2017).
[iii] Renowned Egyptian Islamic scholar and jurist Muhammad 'Abduh (1849 –1905), who called for renewal in the Arab and Muslim world, is regarded as one of the key founding figures of Islamic reform and Modernism.
[iv] Egyptian Islamic Scholar and Jurist Al-Sha'rawi was an immensely popular Islamic preacher, and has been called "one of the most prominent symbols of popular Egyptian culture" in the 1970s-1990s.
[v] Tantawy, an influential scholar, also served the grand Mufti of Egypt.
[vi] It should be noted that 'Afifi ignored the first part of this verse, which refers negatively to the Jews, saying: "You will surely find the most intense of the people in animosity toward the believers [to be] the Jews and those who associate others with Allah."
[vii] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 27, 2017.
[viii] The December 11, 2016 blast near the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral in Al-Abbasiya, Cairo, left 25 people dead and 49 injured. See Al-Ahram (Egypt, December 12, 2016.
[ix] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 27, 2017.
[x] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 29, 2017.