Does the Qur’an Preach Violence?

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.

—rj

Islam: The Hi-Jacking of a Faith

terroprismWe are stunned by what’s happened in France. Thursday, twelve people assassinated by two French jihadists at publisher Charlie Hebdo in Paris and a policewoman killed elsewhere. Yesterday, the three terrorists killed, along with four hostages.

In their assault on journalists, their violence poses a threat to not only press freedom, but free speech fundamental to any democracy.

Collectively, like-minded Muslim extremists have bombed newspaper offices, stabbed a Dutch filmmaker, killed writers, and imposed fatwahs, or death decrees, on others like noted author, Salmon Rushdie.  More recently, Pakistani Taliban murdered 132 school children, enraging a government where blasphemy laws are imbedded in the legal system.

Offended by cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, these “defenders of the prophet” were part of an underground cell that may number in the hundreds of thousands across the globe, and thus impossible for intelligence sources to keep up with.

It would seem incredulous that fervent devotees to Islam, which often dubs itself “the religion of peace,” commit such heinous acts, ultimately epitomized on a larger scale in the atrocities of Al Qaeda and Isis.

But they kill each other as well. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite factions wantonly blow-up each other every day.

For too long, we’ve heard very little from the wider Muslim community on the subject. Some Muslims, in fact, have made it known that they’re offended that when such events like those in France occur, they must speak up, indicating a public view of them as a subversive presence.

And I can understand their sensitivity about having to continually prove themselves. Still, I think they’re wrong in taking this stance, as I’ll explain in my close.

I know from my own contacts with Muslims, particularly in France where I was once a student, just how wonderfully decent they are. My friends came from Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, and Syria.

They were universally kind to me and I was invited to Jerusalem, though I never went. To this day, I rejoice for having fellowshipped with them daily.

Religion never separated us, for we shared a common humanity of sensitivity and compassion.

They were surprised to come across an American championing a free Palestine. As one of them said to me, “C’est historique!”

In all of this, we do well to remember that being zealous, whether religiously or politically, is inherently dangerous, often giving away to rancor and intimidation, and in heated moments, violence. In short, we can forfeit our humanity.

But zealots aren’t confined to any one faith. Religious totalitarians, they represent the voice of Passion, and not Reason.

I remember when one Israeli shot more than 50 worshipping Palestinians in Jerusalem many years ago.

Here, In the U. S., we have evangelical Christians who have not only maligned homosexuals, but continue to conspire against their fundamental rights.

A few have killed abortionists.

And then we have history’s testimony as to how bloody Christianity could be, whether in crusades against Muslims, or against one another during the Reformation.

As for Judaism, its sacred scriptures–or what Christians call the Old Testament– are hideously bloody, sanctioning genocide.

I had thought for many years that Buddhism was spared from all of this, but alas, it just isn’t so, as we see in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, where they constitute a majority.

But I want to return to Islam and point out features that characterize its scripture, the Qur’an, unwittingly, providing kindling for jihadists to fuel their violence.

Make no mistake about it, the Qur’an is foundational to Islamic law, theology, and daily life as Allah’s completed revelation via the angel Gabriel to his prophet, Mohammed. Its opening verses are recited daily in mosques all over the world. Radio and TV quote it daily.

Many Muslim children begin early to memorize the entire Qur’an.

It has its own style, often employing contrasts, and doesn’t feature a chronological or thematic ordering.

Unfortunately, it’s a sacred text subject to the limitations of all written language isolated from the immediate feedback of spoken discourse.

Fraught with ambiguity, its classical Arabic is complicated by idiom and dictional features that can allow for multiple nuances, perhaps most notably in a critical word such as jihad often being translated as “fighting,” rather than as “struggle,” its more appropriate meaning.

Because the Qur’an is essentially intra-textual, or self-referencing, it demands astute readers consider context and align verses for accurate exegesis,

Passages can have a concision, which when isolated from context, obscure the wider intent. This, in turn, often leads to non-Muslims and Muslim extremists employing isolated texts to exploit their views and debasing a noble faith.

The Qur’an doesn’t sanction violence against unbelievers, for example, though one might be led to think so based on a verse such as 2:191: “Slay them wherever you find them.” The “them” here refers to the previous verse and its “those who attack you.” (The Qur’an does permit Muslims to defend themselves if they’re under physical attack.)

Nor does the Qur’an exclude “People of the Book, ” (i.e., Jews and Christians) from salvation. In fact, it encourages them to practice their faiths (5:45, 47).

Consider this passage, for example:

We have assigned a law and a path to each of you. If God had so willed, He would have made you one community, but he wanted to test you through that which He has given you, so race to do good: you will all return to God and He will make clear to you the matters you differed about (5:48).

Yes, there are Muslim exegetes who take isolated passages to buttress their fundamentalism, denying the full amplitude of other Suras (chapters) and of cultural contexts no longer extant. But such doings aren’t confined to Islam, but a trademark of Jewish and Christian fundamentalism as well.

Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbigloo, responding to the tragedy in France, has articulated the barbarism that accordingly takes place whenever fundamentalism runs rampant and seeks to impose its dictates through force:

Fanatics and fundamentalists have always rejected and struggled against each other. When fundamentalism seeks to enforce sectarianism through coercion and violence, it invariably leads to terrorism. When people believe that they have the absolute truth, they end up denying other people’s existence. Then they can no longer distinguish the good from the evil and are thus unable to establish a modus vivendi among different values

Finding a common ground can only work if we share enough to behave civilly. It goes without saying that though some Jews, Muslims, Christians and Hindus may be terrorists, no religion in the world, much less Islam, teaches terrorism or inspires anyone to kill innocent people.

And he’s right. I like to call such parochialism “tribalism.”

Accordingly, what’s happened in France and happens daily in the Middle East isn’t Islam, but its distortion.

This, of course, is why Muslims must come to the forefront and speak out against those bent on hijacking their faith.

And many are doing so, along with the French Muslim Council and, here at home, the Council of American-Islamic Relations. Even the Iranian government has condemned this violence.

Terrorist ideologues such as these and their wannabe counterparts who pollute Twitter with their hate constitute the true blasphemy and not the slaughtered cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

–rj

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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