Yesterday came news of the slaughter of up to 300 Sufi worshippers exiting a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai at the close of prayer, among them, twenty-seven children. It isn’t the first time such a murderous attack on unarmed civilians, even fellow Muslims, has occurred in Egypt and elsewhere.
Increasingly, Islamic violence has spread to Europe and North America as well. Thanks to Carnegie Mellon’s interactive platform, EarthTimeLapse, drawing on the Global Terrorism Database, we can even precisely map both its locale and frequency over the last 20-years.
Last year, 2016, Islamic extremists killed 269 people across Europe. In America, we’ve largely escaped since 9/11, apart from several sporadic incidents, the latest occurring in NYC when Uzbekistan immigrant Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov drove a rented truck into a crowded bike lane in lower Manhattan, killing eight on October 31, 2017.
All of this pales, however, when we include the Middle East and Africa, where 19,121 died last year, according to the Global Terrorist Data project, nearly all of them Muslim, which we’re likely to miss in our frequent ethnocentrism.
Consequently, it’s not unreasonable that many have come to associate Islam, “the religion of peace,” with violence. Critics call it Islamophobia.
Feeding into the public’s unease have been the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Spencer and Pamela Geller, who have vociferously argued that Islam is intrinsically disposed to violence, both in its long history and the present, posing an insidious threat to our nation’s future, given their rising immigration numbers, high birth levels, and alleged intolerance.
And, of course, there’s President Trump who has seemingly bought into the nation’s anxiety, perhaps for political advantage.
I would personally like to defuse my own unease that erupts with almost daily news bulletins announcing some new, malicious violence somewhere on our troubled planet. Hopefully, its source isn’t Islam, but almost always it is.
I studied in France at the University of Dijon in the summer of 1985 and my best memories are of the friendships I shared with Muslims from Morocco, Iraq, Jordan, Iran, Syria and Israel. What won their affection was my sympathy for the Palestinians in their pursuit of nationhood, something they found incongruous, what with the stereotype Muslims often have of Americans, given our country’s traditional support for Israel.
We never quarreled. In fact, religion never came up at all.
At home, while I haven’t had much contact with Muslims, I’ve met several who treated me with kindness when I’ve met them in stores, allowing me to precede them in a line or fetching me a grocery cart.
My experience of Muslim reciprocal kindness tells me that like most human beings, their heart is good and wants to share its goodness, and that their faith has been grievously maligned.
Now comes Gary Will’s new book, What the Qur’an Meant And Why It Matters (Viking,2017). This a crucial book, since Muslim proponents of terrorism trace what we now know as jihad back to the Qur’an, which they interpret literally, devoid of context or cultural antecedents, doing what fundamentalists generally do whatever their proclaimed religion.
Taken out of context, the Qur’an can indeed be disturbing reading, but so can the Old Testament with its advocacy of genocide towards those of different faith and culture like the Moabites. Wills, on the other hand, persuasively argues that the Qur’an is utterly incompatible with the barbaric atrocities committed in its name by Isis, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, the Taliban, and Al-shabaab.
Wills points out, for example, that the Qur’an’s employment of jihad “striving,” i.e.,”zeal,” and sharia don’t resonate their original nuance for these groups, and that jihad, for example, can suggest “holy war” in modern Arabic.
As for “sharia” with its modern association with complex religious laws, it occurs only once in the Qur’an (Q.45:18) and simply means “the right path.” In fact, no complex system of religious laws even existed in the Prophet’s lifetime.
In Wills’ view, the Qur’an has been grossly abused by militant Muslims, its text supporting peaceable co-existence with Judaism and Christianity and recognizing Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus as antecedent prophets to the preeminent prophet, Mohammed.
The Qur’an does allow for defensive warfare against militant aggressors opposed to monotheism: “If God did not refuel some people by means of others, many monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, where God’s name is much invoked, would have been destroyed (Q. 22:40).
The one liability for Wills is the Qur’an’s seeming denigration of women as in Q. 4:34: “If you fear bad conduct from your wives, advise them, then ignore them in bed, then strike them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them.”
By the same token, the Qur’an doesn’t assign blame to Eve, who is unnamed, for the transgression in the garden, unlike the Old Testament.
While Wills’ scholarship seems impeccable in its fairness and exactitude, the problem of the Qur’an’s grievously distorted message and misappropriation by radical Islamic extremists and many Western critics, remains. Good as Wills’ book is, it will prove no more effectual in promoting reconciliation with all faiths than a seed by itelf can produce a harvest.
Islam needs to undergo theological and cultural reform, as occurred with Judaism and Christianity to curtail radical extremism. Though there are reformers trying to do just that such as Maajid Nawaz, Asra Nomani, and Irshad Manji, they’re all too few and face vehement opposition, if not enmity, among purists and entrenched theocracies like Iran. Islam isn’t merely a faith but a total way of life in which change, if any occurs, will only come grudgingly.
What this book can do for those who read it is expurgate the vast majority of the world’s one billion Muslims, whether Sunni or Shiite, from the shibboleth of violence and intolerance so often impugning both the Qur’an and its practice as a consequence of an extremist minority. After all, Muslims have been by far, terrorism’s victims as yesterday’s Sufi massacre attests.