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John the Baptist / Yahya ibn Zakariyya

Most westerners don’t have a clue that John the Baptist, as well as Jesus, are featured prominently in the Qur’an.

Today’s reading in The Lectionary starts of the magically lyrical Book of John, and, if you read between the lines, you get a clue to the mystery of the holy trinity – not three Gods, not at all, but three facets of the one God we people of the book believe in:

John 1:1-18

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.

(This is the tomb of John the Baptist / Yahya in the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, Syria)

00umyahyahstomb.jpg

So we ask ourselves, what exactly does the Qur’an have to say about John, and going to Wikipedia, I found the following (I have added paragraph separations to make it more readable):

According to the Qur’an

According to the Quran, Yahya was the son of Zakariya, and was foretold to his father by the angel Gabriel. Yahya is called a righteous, honorable and chaste person, as well as a Prophet of the Righteous ([Qur’an 6:85], [Qur’an 3:39]). He came to confirm the Word of God ([Qur’an 3:39]). His story was retold by Jafar to the Abyssinian King during the Migration to Abyssinia [2].

In his recent article, Agron Belica say’s the following: this prophet has been overlooked and misrepresented. One reason he has been overlooked is because there are five words used in the Quran to describe Prophet Yahya that have been misinterpreted in translations of the Quran. The first is the word hasur which is usually translated “chaste.” My research shows that the Arabic word hasur does not mean “chaste” with regard to Yahya; rather , it means “a concealer of secrets.”

Why the mistake in translation and commentary? As there was no extensive information given in the Quran about the life of Prophet Yahya nor in the hadith, the commentators then turned to Christian tradition and simply repeated what they found there. Nonetheless, the commentators of the Quran have placed considerable emphasis on this word.

Al-Tabari interprets the word hasur to mean one who abstains from sexual intercourse with women. He then reports a hadith on the authority of Said ibn al-Musayyab which has Prophet Muhammad saying the following: “Everyone of the sons of Adam shall come on the Day of Resurrection with a sin (of sexual impropriety) except Yahya bin Zechariah.’ Then, picking up a tiny straw, he continued, ‘this is because his generative organ was no bigger then this straw (implying that he was impotent).’” Does this mean that even the prophets outside of Yahya will be raised up with this sin of sexual impropriety? How can we accept that this was said by such a modest human being, comparing a straw to another prophet’s generative organ? Was Yahya impotent?

One commentator, Ibn Kathir, a renowned Islamic scholar , rejects this view and adds, “This would be a defect and a blemish unworthy of prophets.” He then mentions that it was not that he had no sexual relations with women, but that he had no illegal sexual relations with them. Indeed, the whole discussion is unseemly. It is known that prophets of God are immune from major sins, so this statement makes no sense at all when interpreting the word, hasur. In addition, I would like to mention the fact that in his commentary, ibn Kathir says he (Yahya) probably married and had children. He said this on the basis of what was related in the Quran of the prayer of Zachariah. There are at least three reasons why interpreting hasur in this context as “chaste” is a misinterpretation: First of all, there is another word in the Quran for “chaste” and that is muhasanah. As God used a different word with hasur, it must mean something different. Secondly, God says in the Quran that Islam did not bring monasticism but that it was something that they (the Christians) invented. Therefore, God would not have sent a Prophet who was celibate. In addition, it is contrary the exhortation in the Torah to “go forth and multiply.” Thirdly, Yahya’s father, Zechariah prayed for a protector who would provide descendants (dhuriyyat) for his family. “There Zachariah called to his Lord; he said: My Lord! Bestow on me good offspring from Thy presence; truly Thou art hearing supplication.” (3:38) God gave him Yahya.

God would not have sent a son to Zechariah who would not carry on the line of Jacob’s descendants because then God would not have answered the prayer of Zechariah. The word hasur is used only one time in the Quran and that is in regard to the Prophet Yahya.

A major Arabic-English lexicon, that of Edward William Lane (Taj al-Arus) states that when hasur is used alone, it means “concealer of secrets.” In his translation, of Ibn al- Arabi’s Book of the Fabulous Gryphon, Elmore also translates the Arabic hasur “as consealer of secrets.” In the referenced passage, “chaste” would not have been appropriate. (Gerald T. Elmore, Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time, Brill 1999, P. 482)

The second word that has been misinterpreted is waliy (19:5) which in this verse and many others in the Quran means “protector” not “heir or successor.” In this specific case, Zechariah prays to his Lord: “And truly I have feared my defenders after me and my wife has been a barren woman. So bestow on me from that which proceeds from Thy Presence a protector (waliy).”

The third word that is misinterpreted is that of fard in (21:89): “And mention Zechariah when he cried out to his Lord: My Lord! Forsake me not unassisted (fard) and Thou art the Best of the ones who inherit.” It is usually translated as “heir,” but the same reasoning applies as above. The word “unassisted” refers to the fact that Zechariah did not want to be left alone without any protector. He feared for those who would defend him and his honor after he died, that they would be left without a protector and thereby could not defend his honor.

The fourth misinterpreted word in relation to Prophet Yahya is sayyid. Prophet Yahya is referred to as a sayyid, chief in the Quran. The commentators have interpreted this to mean that he was a scholar of religious law, a wise man, a noble wise and pious man, and so forth. This was a prophet of God. Knowledge and wisdom were given to him by his Lord. The title given to Yahya by his Lord shows that Prophet Yahya is one who has authority over his people and not “noble” or “honorable” as this word is usually translated. Honor and nobility are good qualities but they fail to indicate that Prophet Yahya is given a role of leadership by his Lord.

The fifth word is hanan which means “mercy,” which is part of the compound name Yu’hanan (in English “John”), meaning “God is Merciful.” The word hanan is used once in the Quran and that is in reference to Prophet Yahya: “And continuous mercy from Us and purity . . . .” This is singularly appropriate to the circumstances of the Prophet Yahya. The names Yahya and Yuhanan are not the same as many assume. They have two entirely different roots. Hanan and hanna both derive from the Semitic root h n n. While the word hanna means “mercy or tenderness,” the root word for Yahya is h y y. It means “life” or “he lives.” One does not need to be a linguist to see the obvious. In addition, I would like also to mention that this name and attribute given to Prophet Yahya can also be found in Sabean literature. The Sabians are mentioned in the Quran in verses (2:62), (5:69) and (22:17).

In their canonical prayer book we find Yahya Yuhanna. It has been known that it is the practice of the Sabians to have two names, a real name and a special name. According to the Sabians, this prophet’s real name was Yahya (he lives) and his lay name was Yuhanna (John). Prophet Yahya is the only one given this name as the Quran clearly states: “O Zechariah! Truly We give thee the good tidings of a boy; his name will be Yahya (he who lives) and We assign it not as a namesake (samiyya) for anyone before.” Again, another word that we need to pay attention to is samiya. It is used twice in the Quran, once in reference to Yahya (19:7) “O Zechariah! Truly We give thee the good tidings of a boy; his name will be Yahya and We assign it not as a namesake (samiya) for anyone before.” The other time it is used is in reference to God. “. . . Knowest thou any namesake (samiya) for Him [God]?” (19:65)

In the famous Arabic lexicon Lisan al-arab the root word s m w means elevation or highness. “Then the angels proclaimed to him while he was in the sanctuary that God gives you good tidings of Yahya-one who establishes the word of God as true- a chief and a concealer of secrets and a prophet, among the ones who are in accord with morality.”(3:39) See The Sublime Quran Pocket Size translated by Laleh Bakhtiar (2009)

So here is what I am thinking this morning . . . We have so much to offer one another. We use each other’s books – Jewish, Christian, Moslem – and studies to illuminate our beliefs. Why are we niggling over trivialities? If we were to clasp hands and fight together against the forces of darkness, what a mighty force for good we would be!

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June 7, 2009 - Posted by | Bureaucracy, Character, Community, ExPat Life, Interconnected, Random Musings, Spiritual

10 Comments »

  1. I LOVE your photo in this post!

    What I have found is that there are FASHIONS in religion as well as in everything else. At the moment, the Islamic world is undergoing the “fashion” of extremist interpretations spreading. Think of the Inquisition, or the Protestant Reformation, or different “fashions” in Christianity, as well. The people you mention in this post who are concentrating on the “differences” are the ones drawn to extremist interpretations. Sometimes these movements last for decades, or centuries.

    An Islamic scholar from Morocco pointed out to me that Wahabi Islam was actually tried to be stamped out by other branches when it first appeared, but now that its birthplace has become rich, they are able to spread their interpretation around-the-world. The scholar pointed out that Islam has survived different movements before, and that many view that Islam will survive extremists again at some future point. Her point was that it is not the religion which is emphasizing differences, but the people themselves trying to make it extreme.

    A comparable example might be to equate all Christians with the type who blow up abortion clinics and kill doctors who participate. If that group suddenly became very rich and started building churches and spreading their view all around the world, that doesn’t mean it’s the RELIGION emphasizing violence, but the PEOPLE practicing it, or trying to justify their extremism using religion.

    An interesting aside, the story of Jesus IS told in the Koran, but their version is completely different from our own. In the Islamic version, Joseph (Jesus’ father) apparently is not even mentioned that he exists, and all of Jesus’ early years are completely changed. Islam presents Jesus as a babe talking and teaching from the cradle as an adult would, seemingly born as an adult able to speak as one, while still a baby!

    Expat 21 (Expat Abroad)
    expat21.wordpress.com

    Comment by expat21 | June 7, 2009 | Reply

  2. I didnt know John the baptist was mentioned in the Qur’an. You learn something new everyday 🙂

    Comment by Mathai | June 7, 2009 | Reply

  3. Excellent points, Expat21, and excellent illustrations. Thank you for contributing. 🙂

    I didn’t know, either, Mathai, until the last few years. I learned Arabic at QCPI, the predecessor to Fanar, an Islamic group that reaches out, teaching Arabic and local culture to those who come here to live. My first eye-opener was learning that Noah (Noh) and Jonah are both mentioned in the Qur’an.

    Comment by intlxpatr | June 7, 2009 | Reply

  4. Interesting! I found this article by the same person:

    Was Prophet Yahya (John the Baptist) Beheaded?
    by Agron Belica©2008

    Prophet Yahya could not have been beheaded as has been stated by many Muslim and Christian scholars. In regards to Jesus in the Quran we read: “Peace on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day I will be raised up again.” The verse states that Jesus was given safety and security in these three situations. But what about Yahya ibn Zechariah? We find the same description for him as we find for Jesus, Peace on him the day he is born, the day he dies, and the day he is raised up again.

    We are told by way of an early historian, Josephus, that Yahya was put to death because of his political activities. Josephus does not mention the manner of Prophet Yahya’s death. Others have stated that Prophet Yahya was beheaded. If the case be true that Yahya was convicted of the crime of treason as Josephus and others indicate, the punishment would not have been beheading. Under Roman Law, only Roman citizens were sentenced to beheading. Any non Roman citizen was sentenced to death by crucifixion. This was the case with Jesus, a non-Roman citizen, being accused of treason and sentenced to crucifixion. In addition, we see that when Paul was sentenced to die, he pleaded that he was a Roman citizen so that he would be beheaded and not crucified. (Acts 22:27-28).

    Certainly if it is the case that Yahya’s followers were many, spread far and wide, as it has been reported by some, and that Josephus mentions that the Jews were greatly moved by Prophet Yahya’s words, and that Herod feared that Yahya’s influence over the masses would cause a rebellious uprising leading to a revolt by the Jews against the Romans (Antiquities 18:.5.2 116-119), then this would be in accord with the practice of capital punishment of said criminals under Roman law. That is, that non Roman citizens be crucified.

    How does the supposed beheading of Yahya fit in the above Quranic verse of one given peace by his Lord? We find in the commentary of Ibn Kathir that Yahya was also given safety and security in these three situations, but ironically we also find in his book, ‘Stories of The Prophets’ agreeing with the Gospel accounts of Yahya being beheaded and his head being served on a platter. What does ibn Kathir mean by this statement? How do we explain the beheading of this Prophet of God? How is he one who was safe and secure? Are we to say that God saved Jesus, but abandoned Yahya? Is this divine justice? As far as we know all the prophets mentioned in the Quran were delivered from their enemies. Ironically, Prophet Yahya whose name means He Who Lives is popularly supposed to have been put to death.

    Comment by Sammy | June 10, 2009 | Reply

  5. Absolutely fascinating argument, Sammy, and thank you for adding it here.

    I am not a scholar, but the story in the Bible and Qur’an indicates that Herod had to behead John the Baptist unwillingly; he had made a commitment to his very seductive step-daughter in the presence of a large company of people, and even though reluctant, he had to back up his promise, which would explain the anomaly.

    Of course, the Qur’an and Bible differ as to the death of Jesus. I am guessing “safe and secure” refers to their status in the love of God/Allah, not necessarily their treatment at the hands of men.

    Great food for thought, thank you again for commenting.

    Comment by intlxpatr | June 10, 2009 | Reply

  6. A new book The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity?s rattling the windows of orthodoxy with its assertion that we have gotten the Crucifixion of Jesus all wrong. Everybody knows that Jesus was put on the cross and crucified, right? Well, maybe not, according to the author Agron Belica, an American Muslim of Albanian ancestry.

    It is well known that Muslims deny the death of Jesus on the cross. For centuries, theories have circulated among sects usually considered heretical by the religious establishment as to how Jesus may have evaded such a death, but Belica’s theory trumps them all: the man nailed to the cross was not Jesus at all but rather his cousin John the Baptist!

    Absurd? Perhaps not. Belica puts forth well-reasoned arguments for his proposition and has marshalled considerable circumstantial evidence to support his cause. His re-interpretation of some key words in the Quran causes anxiety in some Islamic scholarly circles, however some have already gained some acceptance. He does not state that his solution is definitive; only that it is a possible solution put before the reader for his consideration.

    Belica dismisses the Biblical stories of Salome’s dance and John’s beheading that are also found in Islamic tradition as fiction. He replaces them with a more historically satisfying solution of the fate of John the Baptist. Belica has made the restoration of John the Baptist, known in the Islamic world as Yahya, to his rightful place among the prophets his life mission.

    An essay, Rethinking John the Baptist, by Jay R. Crook, is appended to the book. It examines in detail the historical and chronological problems that Belica’s theory had to overcome. With some help from the ancient Jewish historian Josephus among others, he concludes that such a theory cannot be dismissed out of hand simply because it conflicts with the Biblical accounts of John the Baptist. Writes Dr. Crook: “John the Baptist, this neglected and underestimated prophet has an enthusiastic advocate in Agron Belica.”

    The book is well researched, extensively annotated, indexed, and supplied with a bibliography. Book published by, http://www.islammattersnow.com

    ‘The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity? by Agron Belica is an engaging analysis of the life and mission of the two kindred religious personages, John the Baptist (Yahya) and Jesus (`Isa). Even though the central argument of the book, namely that the man who was hung on the cross was John and not Jesus, may be academically open to question as it rests on circumstantial evidence, the book will add much to the discussion of an epoch-making event that has shaped world history. The book is informative and entertaining. It is certainly worth reading.’

    Dr. Mahmoud M. Ayoub

    Professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations

    Hartford Seminary, Hartford CT

    http://islammattersnow.com/islammattersnow.com/THE_CRUCIFIXION__MISTAKEN_IDENTITY.html

    Comment by Josh Bradley | January 8, 2010 | Reply

  7. Fascinating, Josh, and thank you for contributing this. In checking your reference, I had to laugh – Welcome to Puerto Vallarta’s liveliest website? 🙂

    Comment by intlxpatr | January 8, 2010 | Reply

  8. Albanian-American author says: “John the Baptist has been misrepresented by scholars of both Christianity and Islam”

    (PRWEB) May 13, 2010 — Recent research embodied in a new book by Agron Belica invites our attention to the predicament of John the Baptist, popularly known for little more than the story of his beheading by order of Herod Antipas at the behest of a seductive dancing girl, the infamous Salome.

    His book, The Crucifixion: Mistaken Identity? John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ, arguing from the chronological and historical evidence provided by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus and the New Testament about John, demonstrates that the story of his beheading is almost certainly spurious.
    Comparison with the writings of Josephus gives the lie to this scenario for, as the detailed scrutiny and evaluation of Josephus’s text shows, Herod Antipas probably did not order John’s execution until 36 CE, half a dozen years later than most datings of the event of the crucifixion. Belica suggests that it was the Prophet Yahya (John the Baptist) who was placed on the cross and survived the ordeal and not Jesus, in a case of mistaken identity.

    The book’s editor, Dr. Jay R. Crook, asks: “How would this later date affect our discussion of Belica’s theories, especially his suggestion that John was the principal actor in the crucifixion, not Jesus? Put simply, it would remove it from the realm of chronological impossibility to that of chronological possibility.” It would relegate the colorful John-Salome story (to which Josephus makes no reference) to the category of an urban myth, not history.

    Step by step, his book carefully and plausibly resurrects the reputation of the Baptist, not as a minor gospel figure, the forerunner of Christ, but as a major prophet in his own right. In an article published in 2008, The Revival of the Prophet Yahya, he noted that the Quran, while not slighting Jesus, accords Yahya (John the Baptist) such a status, citing key words in the Quranic text such as sayyid (chief), hasur (concealer of secrets), and waliy (protector/guardian).

    He contended that these words, among others, have been misinterpreted by most translators and commentators of the Quran, the result being that they have failed to confirm his unique status and his role in the messianic story.
    Belica further criticizes those traditionalists who, he asserts, have fallen under the spell of the sensational Biblical account of John’s death and have repeated it in their commentaries without questioning its authenticity, even though there is nothing in the Quran to justify such a thing; indeed, Belica believes, the story goes against the entire tenor of the Quranic view of the prophet. He writes: “Countless works have been published pertaining to the false crucifixion of the son of Mary by Muslims, yet the false beheading of the son of Zachariah is largely ignored, why?”

    Furthermore, Belica asserts: “The Prophet Yahya could not have been beheaded as has been asserted by many Muslim and Christian scholars. With regard to Jesus, in the Quran, we read: Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day I will be raised up again. (Q. 19:33) The verse states that Jesus was given safety and security in these three situations. But what about the Prophet Yahya? We find the same description for him as we find for Jesus, Peace be upon him the day he is born, the day he dies, and the day he is raised up again. (Q. 19:15) How does the supposed beheading of Yahya fit in the above Quranic verse of one given peace by his Lord? As far as we know, all the prophets mentioned by name in the Quran were delivered from their enemies. Yet, the Prophet Yahya, whose name ironically means He Who Lives, is popularly believed to have been put to death. In my opinion, this would cause an inconsistency in the Quran.” said Belica.

    Belica takes on another issue that has exercised Quranic exegetes over the centuries: the meaning and implications of the word shubbiha used in reference to the Crucifixion. The Quran explicitly denies the crucifixion of Jesus, instead declaring that it only appeared so unto them. Taking the issue forward from that, Belica discusses the relations of Jesus and John and the nature of their missions. Belica shows how the meaning of shubbiha in the Quran could extend to the resemblance of the two prophets John and Jesus and other places as well. “John’s being put on the cross would in no way impugn the peace of God as given to other prophets, such as Abraham who was given the same peace when thrown into the blazing fire, yet rescued by the Almighty.” said Belica.
    Dr. Mahmoud Ayoub, Professor of Islamic Studies and Comparative Religion at the Hartford Seminary, in his comments about Agron Belica’s book, writes: “[It is an engaging analysis of the life and mission of the two kindred religious personages, John the Baptist (Yahya) and Jesus (‘Isa).”

    Belica feels the whole role of the Prophet Yahya (John the Baptist) in religious history should be reevaluated. He considers him the most neglected of the major prophet s and that it is time to redress this slight.
    Book available at, The Harvard Book Store: http://harvard.com/onourshelves/title.php?isbn=0615333990

    http://news.google.com/news/search?aq=f&pz=1&cf=all&ned=us&hl=en&q=The+Passion+of+the+Baptist

    http://news.yahoo.com/s/prweb/20100513/bs_prweb/prweb3990554_1

    Comment by Harlem | May 19, 2010 | Reply

  9. […] can still feel the air grow still as the British Ambassador to Kuwait read a very odd scripture about John the Baptist. It was odd bec… and I was astonished for two reasons. First, I didn’t know that the Muslims recognized John […]

    Pingback by John the Baptist and Brood of Vipers « Here There and Everywhere | December 20, 2014 | Reply


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