The first verse that causes confusion to one unfamiliar with orthodoxy is Qur’an 2:62, whose confusion is eliminated by the following translation from Saheeh International through the use of ungainly, yet necessary, comments in square brackets:
Indeed, those who believed and those who were Jews or Christians or Sabeans [before Prophet Muhammad] – those [among them] who believed in Allah and the Last Day and did righteousness – will have their reward with their Lord, and no fear will there be concerning them, nor will they grieve.
The relevant exegesis of this verse from the Tafsir (exegesis, or interpretation) of Tabari, on the authority of Suddi and Mujahid (the student of Ibn ‘Abbas, may God be well pleased with him and his father), establishes the orthodox position from the earliest period of Muslim history:
The Suddi Hadith
Suddi relates the lengthy story of Salman the Persian’s coming to Islam, telling of his conversion first to Christianity from Zoroastrianism after meeting a Christian monk, and how he travelled to one sage after the next, serving each until their death, until the last one told him that a prophet was about to appear, saying: “I do not think that I shall live to see him, but you are a young man, and are likely to live to see him. He will come forth in the land of the Arabs.” The account continues to when at last Salman meets the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) in Medina, and:
while he was talking with him, Salman remembered his former companions, and told the Prophet ﷺ how they had been, saying, “They used to fast, pray, and believe in you, and they testified that you would be sent as a prophet.” When Salman had finished praising them, the Prophet ﷺ told him, “Salman, they are of the denizens of hell.” And that distressed Salman greatly, for he had said to him, “Had they met you they would have believed and followed you.” So Allah revealed this verse: “‘Surely those who believe, those of Jewry, the Christians, and the Sabaeans—whoever has faith in Allah and the Last Day . . .” (Tabari, 1.323).
The Mujahid Hadith
The second hadith (record of the words or actions of the Prophet ﷺ) is from Mujahid, also about the conversion of Salman to Islam and the subsequent revealing of the verse “Surely those who believe...” In this account:
Salman told the Prophet ﷺ about those Christians and what he had seen of their works, and he replied, “They did not die upon Islam.” Salman said, “The whole earth darkened around me,” and he recounted their spiritual rigors. Then this verse was revealed, so the Prophet ﷺ summoned Salman and told him, “This verse has been revealed about your companions.” Then he added, “Whoever dies upon the religion of Jesus and in submission [lit. “upon Islam”] before he hears of me is in goodly state. But whoever hears of me today and does not believe in me has perished,” (Tabari, 1.323).
Therefore, the correct interpretation (ta’wil) of the verse is what we have just mentioned from Mujahid and Suddi; that those who believe of this Umma [community], and those who were Jews, and the Christians, and Sabaeans: whoever believed—of the Jews, Christians, and Sabaeans—in God and the Last Day, “their wage awaits them with their Lord; no fear shall be upon them, nor shall they sorrow.” The interpretation we first mentioned [in his Qur’anic exegesis a few pages earlier, that “whoever believes in and acknowledges the Resurrection after death on Judgement Day, and does good deeds, obeying God, shall have their reward with their Lord”] is closest to the literal content of the text, for Allah (exalted is His praise) has not chosen one segment of humanity above the rest in rewarding good works when they are accompanied by true faith. [Tabari, 1.320, 323–24, trans. Keller]
Ibn Kathir also states in his Tafsir:
[After narrating that the verse was revealed as mentioned by Suddi] The faith of the Jews was that of whoever adhered to the Torah and the sunnah [tradition] of Moses (upon whom be peace) until the coming of Jesus. When Jesus came, whoever held fast to the Torah and the sunnah of Moses without giving them up and following Jesus was lost.
The faith of the Christians was that whoever adhered to the Evangel and precepts of Jesus, their faith was valid and acceptable until the coming of Muhammad ﷺ. Those of them who did not then follow Muhammad ﷺ and give up the sunnah of Jesus and the Evangel were lost.
The foregoing is not contradicted by the hadith relating that the verse “Surely those who believe, those of Jewry, the Christians, and the Sabaeans—whoever has faith in Allah and the Last Day...” (2:62), was followed by Allah’s revealing: “Whoever seeks other than Islam as a religion shall never have it accepted of him, and he shall be of those who have truly failed in the next life,” (Qur’an 3:85), for the hadith merely confirms that no one’s way or spiritual works are acceptable unless they conform to the Sacred Law of Muhammad ﷺ now that he has been sent with it. As for people prior to this, anyone who followed the messenger of his own time was guided, on the right path, and was saved. [Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim, 1.283, trans. Keller]
There is also a selection from the fifth chapter of the Qur’an which could cause some confusion to one unfamiliar with the depth of thought underlying orthodox articulations. The following are selections from this series that are chosen by some to fit their philosophical argument justifying contemporary Judaism and Christianity as having not altered the Scripture that their Prophets originally possessed: “But how is it that they come to you for judgment while they have the Torah, in which is the judgment of Allah?” (Qur’an 5:43). “And let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah has revealed therein.” (Qur’an 5:47) “Say, ‘O People of the Scripture, you are [standing] on nothing until you uphold [the law of] the Torah, the Gospel, and what has been revealed to you from your Lord.’” (Qur’an 5:68). The unorthodox presentation on these verses understands them to be a Qur’anic instruction to Jews and Christians that their Scriptures are valid before God.
Muhammad Shafi has elaborated at length on these verses in his Ma’riful Qur’an, whereby he has illustrated the profundity that is required to follow the whole Book together, and not to hold some in opposition, nor neglect other parts. For instance, Qur’anic verse 5:43 was revealed in connection with a matter of law where the Torah and the Sacred Law of Islam agree. The historical background is that Jewish tribes around Madinah, after the Prophet ﷺ migrated there from Makka, came to him as an arbitrator in two cases, one involving killing and retaliation (qatl wa qisas) and the other involved fornication (zina). They sought an arbitrational result that opposed the Torah. These tribes were neither believers in him as a Prophet ﷺ, nor were they non-Muslim citizens (ahl al-dhimma) of the Muslim polity of Madina, but they did have a no-war pact with the Prophet ﷺ; hence 5:42 gives the Prophet ﷺ the choice: judge between them or turn away from them, for a Muslim ruler is not under an obligation to rule upon non-subjects. Nevertheless, in such a case, 5:42 makes it clear that the judgment, if agreed to be undertaken, would be under the Sacred Law of Islam: And if you judge, judge between them with justice. Shafi further explains: “after the coming of the Holy Prophet ﷺ, all former religious codes and their laws are abrogated, except those which have been retained in the Holy Qur’an and the Shari’ah of the Last Prophet.”
Thus, 5:49 states: “So judge between them by what Allah has revealed and do not follow their inclinations away from what has come to you of the truth.” Shafi follows Abu Bakr Jassas’ Ahkam al-Qur’an in understanding this second verse as relating to non-Muslims who are under the care of Muslims or “citizens of the Islamic state and owe allegiance to its legal government.”
Furthermore, Ibn Kathir, in his Tafsir, provides clarification on 5:47 by stating that the Injil (Bible) was revealed for ruling on the people of Jesus’ time (fi zamanihim); and to follow everything contained within the revelation, including “the glad tidings of the Prophetic mission of Muhammad” (al-bishara bi-ba’tha Muhammad) ﷺ.
The joining of all the verses, as clarified above, shows how one is to understand all the verses, without seeking to hold onto a partial selection of the verses, nor giving a false interpretation through recourse to only a selection. Thus one understands the duty to uphold all the previous revelations of God (before their distortion, or tahrif, at the hands of men) and to believe in the last revelation of the Qur’an, as one sees in 5:68:
Say, “O People of the Scripture, you are [standing] on nothing until you uphold [the law of] the Torah, the Gospel, and what has been revealed to you from your Lord [Ibn Kathir: i.e. the Great Qur’an].” And that which has been revealed to you from your Lord will surely increase many of them in transgression and disbelief. So do not grieve over the disbelieving people.
In order to sum-up how Muslims join between believing in the Last Messenger’s message and the previous messages, whilst upholding the obligation of believing in the Last Message of Islam, the following eloquent section from the controversial Sufi Ibn al-‘Arabi is of interest:
“The religious laws (shara’i’) are all lights, and the law of Muhammad ﷺ among these lights is as the sun’s light among the light of the stars: if the sun comes out, the lights of the stars are no longer seen and their lights are absorbed into the light of the sun: the disappearance of their lights resembles what, of the religious laws, has been abrogated (nusikha) by his law ﷺ despite their existence, just as the lights of the stars still exist. This is why we are required by our universal law to believe in all prophetic messengers (rusul) and to believe that all their laws are truth, and did not turn into falsehood by being abrogated: that is the imagination of the ignorant. So all paths return to look to the Prophet’s path ﷺ: if the prophetic messengers had been alive in his time, they would have followed him just as their religious laws have followed his law…” [trans. Keller]
On this point, one can say that Ibn al-‘Arabi and Rumi have been victims of perennialists seemingly searching, and ultimately groping quite desperately, for a basis for their own philosophy, in the hope that they can pass off their philosophy as being a part of Islamic tasawwuf, or Sufism. (Sufism, itself, has become a controversial subject, due to its history. The best course is to view it like any Islamic discipline, and judge a Sufi claimant according to the norms of Islamic scholarship. Historically, it has been easy to place much of Sufism within Islamic orthodoxy, with the normal acceptance that only Prophets are Divinely-protected from error; hence ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi’s comment on Sulami’s biography of the Sufis, in his own Usul al-Din, that Sulami’s work contained almost one thousand Sufis, of whom only three (Abu Hilman, Hallaj and al-Qannad) were considered problematic.) Yet, even in the quotes of Rumi and Ibn al-‘Arabi that the perennialists seek to use, one fails to find the explicitness which the perennialists themselves expound; therefore, it would be more appropriate for perennialists to put forward their views as their own, rather than trying to make dead Sufis speak in their name, when the case is far, far from clear. In fact, in stark contrast to the perennialists, one finds a trend of Sufis striving to proclaim their orthodoxy; as ‘Abdal-Qadir ‘Isa argues in Haqa’iq ‘an al-tasawwuf, numerous leading Sufis would often open their treatises with an explanation of their orthodox beliefs “in order that the dumb fool (jahil ahmaq) or unjust biased person (mughrid mutahamil) [against the Sufis] are not mistaken.” Now to argue that these Sufis would proclaim adherence to “exoteric” beliefs, whilst believing in an “esoteric” truth of “transcendence” of these beliefs, is to accuse the Sufis of pure deception; or if one accepted that many of these Sufis were not perennialists, then one only proves one’s actual disavowal of Sufism, hence making one’s claims to being attached to Sufism an open falsehood.
All of this, therefore, by the will of God, safeguards one misunderstanding the following verse, whilst marvelling at the Divine Wisdom before which human rationality has to surrender and the awe that must greet one reflecting on the Divine Greatness:
To each of you We prescribed a law and a method. Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation [united in religion], but [He intended] to test you in what He has given you; so race to [all that is] good. To Allah is your return all together, and He will [then] inform you concerning that over which you used to differ. (Qur’an 5:48)
Shafi comments on “the wisdom behind partial differences in Shariahs [Sacred Laws] of Prophets”:
“Had Allah so willed, it would not have been at all difficult for Him to make all humans one community with only one Book and one Shari’ah for everyone. But Allah Almighty did not prefer to do so, for He intended to test people. He wanted to see who gets to know the reality of ‘Ibadah (worship) and stays alert to receive and respond positively to whatever command comes for them…Other than this, yet another wisdom behind this difference in Shari’ahs is that since tempers and tastes of human beings from every period and section of the world are different, the variation in the time frame affects human disposition considerably. If subsidiary injunctions were to be made identical for everyone, human beings would be in deep trouble.”
Returning to the above quotation from Ibn al-‘Arabi, we sense an understanding of why it is rational that all of mankind turn, believe and follow the Last Messenger Muhammad ﷺ:
“For he was given Comprehensiveness of Word (Jawami’ al-Kalim), and given [the Qur’anic verse] ‘Allah shall give you an invincible victory‘ (Qur’an 48:3), ‘the invincible’ [al-‘aziz, also meaning rare, dear, precious, unattainable] being who is sought but cannot be reached. When the prophetic messengers sought to reach him, he proved impossible for them to attain to – because of his [being favored above them by] being sent to the entire world (bi’thatihi al-‘amma), and Allah giving him Comprehensiveness of Word (Jawami al-Kalim), and the supreme rank of possessing the Praiseworthy Station (al-Maqam al-Mahmud) in the next world, and Allah having made his Nation (Umma) ‘the best Nation ever brought forth for people‘ (Qur’an 3:110). The Nation of every messenger is commensurate with the station of their prophet, so realize this.” [al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya, III 153.1220, trans. Keller]