Peace in Islam: Qur’an 73:10 on Patience as Tolerance

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Chapter 73 of the Qur’an, “The Robed” (Al-Muzammil), contains what is probably the earliest Islamic injunction to turn the other cheek.

8. Remember the name of your Lord and devote yourself to Him wholeheartedly–
9. the Lord of the East and the West. There is no god save He, so take Him as your defender.
10.Be patient with what they say and take your leave of them graciously.
11.Leave the affluent who impugn you to Me, giving them a respite.

Muhammad ibn Abdullah of the Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe was born, according to my calculations, around 567 CE (AD), i.e. during the reign of the Roman emperor Justin II (r. 565–574) of Constantinople.

A long distance merchant, he experienced a prophetic call in 610, while meditating on retreat at the grotto of Hira’ outside Mecca in western Arabia.

In this chapter of the Qur’an, God is depicted as addressing Muhammad as the “robed one.” Professor Uri Rubin has a detailed article on what the later commentators took this epithet to mean.

My own guess is that Meccans who went on a spiritual retreat signaled their estate by wearing a cloak.

This chapter makes an analogy (verses 15-16) between Moses’ mission to Pharaoh and Muhammad’s to the wealthy Meccan pagan elite. Both Pharaoh and the merchants of Mecca rejected their Messenger from God.

Moreover, the Meccans taunted and insulted Muhammad, according to the Qur’an, as a mere magician or fraudster.

How were the early Believers in Muhammad’s message, and the prophet himself, to deal with such attempts at belittlement?

73:10 says, “Be patient with what they say and take your leave of them graciously.”

“Graciously” here is literally “beautifully.” Obviously, you have to absent yourself from the company of people putting you down unmercifully. But the Qur’an wants the objects of derision to depart without rancor. Just excuse yourself, leaving a comely impression behind.

The sentiment here is very similar to Matthew 5:39, where Jesus says, “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

It is worth saying something about the Qur’an’s use of “patience” (al-ṣabr) in this context. It is used in several distinct senses in the book, including to “suffer with.” But here it clearly means to show forbearance.

While it is not a direct context, in the late Roman empire, the Latin patiencia was used to mean tolerance and forbearance by thinkers such as Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (c. 250-c. 325), a Christian teacher of rhetoric at Nicomedia who survived the great persecution of the early fourth century and then went on to advise the first Christian emperor, Constantine. Since the Hejaz where the Qur’an was recited was a frontier of the eastern Roman Empire, and since Muhammad may have spent a good deal of his life trading up to Roman Damascus and perhaps even residing there for months at a time, Christian Roman ideas like “patience” are not irrelevant to the Qur’an. While Latin receded in the east, some of the Latin authors’ ideas were taken up in Syriac and Greek.

As Pamela Sharp explains, in discussing Lactantius’ Institutes, Elizabeth Digeser in her The Making of a Christian Empire elucidated a difference between tolerance and concord: “Both toleration and concord involve forbearance, or an attitude of patience toward practices that one finds disagreeable, but they differ in the expected outcome. Toleration anticipates no change in the status quo; concord works toward ultimate conversion and unity.” Sharp says that Digeser thinks Lactantius was more about concord, that he urged freedom of religion but did so in anticipation that it would help people ultimately adopt Christianity.

The Qur’an verse here also recalls Paul’s Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God;for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.'”

The Qur’an 73:11-13 instructs Muhammad concerning the rich playboys of Mecca who were questioning his sincerity, “Leave the affluent who impugn you to Me, giving them a respite. For We possess shackles and a conflagration, and food that chokes, and a painful torment.” They are in danger of hellfire anyway.

That is, Muhammad and his followers can show forbearance toward their tormentors and even treat them “beautifully” as they depart their company, in part because they have left issues like personal honor or right and wrong doctrine in the hands of God to judge in the afterlife.

These passages are in the same moral universe as the essay of the early bishop of Carthage (today’s Tunis), Cyprian (c. 210-258 CE) on the virtue of patience:

“Let us, beloved brethren, consider His [Jesus’s] patience in our persecutions and sufferings; let us give an obedience full of expectation to His advent; and let us not hasten, servants as we are, to be defended before our Lord with irreligious and immodest eagerness . . . so that when that day of anger and vengeance shall come, we may not be punished with the impious and sinners, but may be honoured with the righteous and those that fear God.”

I don’t want to be too obvious or presentist in these commentaries on a seventh-century text, but it is worth pointing out that some contemporary followers of Muhammad don’t seem very interested in meeting ridicule of the Prophet with as much graciousness and nonviolence as he himself did.

One other thing: While the later Muslim commentary tradition often sees this chapter as very early in his ministry, I don’t agree unless they are confining themselves to the first few verses and saying that others were added later. The Muslim commentators allege that from 610 to 613 Muhammad preached secretly, making his message public only in the latter year. Since this chapter clearly contains verses referring to his Moses-like mission to the elite, and to his message being rejected and his person ridiculed, it seems to me that it must derive from around 613-614. Since lines 2-19 retain the same rhyme scheme, there is some reason to treat them as a unity. (Verse 20 was clearly added later, in the Medina era, 622-632). Of course, the story about the three-year hiatus between receiving the first revelation and going public could be incorrect; it is from Ibn Hisham/ Ibn Ishaq and much later than the events about which it speaks. But assuming it is correct, this chapter is later than usually placed.

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*Revised slightly about 6 hours after publication, mainly with addition of quote from Cyprian and the following para.

3 Responses

  1. It comes as no surprise to me that there is a common theme of tolerance running through the teachings of great Messengers of the same God, such as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. The problem lies with the followers who do not heed these noble teachings.

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