This morning Bryan Preston published a piece, "When Atheists and Secularists Quote Scripture," at Hot Air, that got blogger Dean Esmay's back up. Esmay has responded to it with a characteristically gracious and well thought-out post entitled "Unbelievabily Pretentious And Tedious Nonsense."
Now, I had some exchanges with Esmay some time ago, and had not intended to revisit his nasty little blog, but he makes some assertions in this that are simply false, and since some people may fall for them, they bear debunking.
Oy vey. The world seems full of silly people today. First, it was Kevin D. and his ridiculous slander of Muhammed (see "A (Re)Definition of Terms" below), and now I see Bryan Preston has an even sillier, and far more pretentious bit of Islamophobic tripe. I should know by now not to engage people who take Robert Spencer seriously, but what the heck.
Esmay never offered the slightest substantive response to my arguments here or here. Instead he continues to snipe -- an easy refuge for the intellectually unarmed.
His argument here is likewise substanceless, where it isn't simply false. The part that stuck out most for me was this:
Furthermore, it is fundamentally wrong to say that a scripture that was written later necessarily takes precedence over verses written earlier. That's utter mumbo-jumbo, and isn't even a Biblical principle let alone a Koranic one.
It is unfortunate actually that Preston has phrased part of his argument this way: "Spencer’s argument is that if any Koranic verses have abrogated any others, then the weight has to be given to the later verses–and they’re the violent ones." That is in fact not my argument, and it certainly isn't based on some principle that later verses necessarily cancel earlier ones, as Esmay misrepresents Preston as saying.
Abrogation in general is in fact a Qur'anic principle ("None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah hath power over all things?" -- 2:106), although Islamic theologians have argued and do argue over what material specifically has been abrogated.
Many traditional Islamic theologians and Qur'an commentators argue that the violent verses of sura 9 abrogate more relatively tolerant material such as sura 109. This is not a newly-minted view "cherry-picked" by Osama bin Laden, as Esmay says; it is in fact a very ancient view. When discussing why Muhammad didn't begin sura 9 with the customary invocation bismillah ar-rahman ar-rahim, in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful, an intriguing answer comes from a Qur'an commentary that is still highly valued today in the Islamic world, Tafsir al-Jalalayn. This is a fifteenth-century work by the renowned imams Jalal al-Din Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Mahalli (1389-1459) and Jalal al-Din ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Abi Bakr al-Suyuti (1445-1505). The invocation, suggests this tafsir, “is security, and [Sura 9] was sent down when security was removed by the sword.”
Security’s removal by the sword meant specifically the end of many treaties the Muslims had made with non-Muslims. Another still-influential Qur'an commentator, Ibn Kathir (1301-1372) quotes an earlier authority, Ad-Dahhak bin Muzahim, to establish that the Verse of the Sword, sura 9:5 ("slay the unbelievers wherever you find them") “abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty, and every term.” He adds from another authority: “No idolater had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara’ah was revealed.” And yet another early commentator, Ibn Juzayy (d. 1340) agrees that one of this verse’s functions is “abrogating every peace treaty in the Qur’an.”
This idea is crucial as a guide to the relationship of the Qur’an’s peaceful passages to its violent ones. Suras 16, 29, 52, 73, and 109 — the sources of many of the Qur'an's verses of peace and tolerance — are all Meccan. That means that many Muslims, guided by commentators such as those above and the imams who teach from them, see these suras only in light of what was revealed later in Medina. Being the last or next-to-last sura revealed, sura 9 is generally understood as being the Qur’an’s last word on jihad, and all the rest of the book — including the “tolerance verses” — must be read in its light.
Ibn Kathir states this explicitly in his commentary on another “tolerance verse”: “And he [Muhammad] saith: O my Lord! Lo! these are a folk who believe not. Then bear with them (O Muhammad) and say: Peace. But they will come to know” (Qur'an 43:88-89). The commentator explains that “say Salam (peace!) means, ‘do not respond to them in the same evil manner in which they address you; but try to soften their hearts and forgive them in word and deed.’” However, that is not the last word on the subject. As Ibn Kathir notes: “But they will come to know. This is a warning from Allah for them. His punishment, which cannot be warded off, struck them, and His religion and His word was supreme. Subsequently Jihad and striving were prescribed until the people entered the religion of Allah in crowds, and Islam spread throughout the east and the west.”
In other words, Muhammad gave peace a chance, with the pacific suras, and then understood that jihad was the better course.
A modern-day Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, has taught that in the Qur'an, “at first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory.” He also distinguishes two groups Muslims must fight: “(1) against them who start ‘the fighting’ against you (Muslims) . . . (2) and against all those who worship others along with Allah . . . as mentioned in Surat Al-Baqarah (II), Al-Imran (III) and At-Taubah (IX) . . . and other Surahs (Chapters of the Qur’an).” (The Roman numerals after the names of the chapters of the Qur’an are the numbers of the Suras: Sheikh ‘Abdullah is referring to verses such as 2:216, 3:157-158, 9:5, and 9:29.)
This understanding of the Qur’an isn’t limited to the Wahhabi sect, to which Sheikh ‘Abdullah belongs. The Pakistani Brigadier S. K. Malik’s 1979 book The Qur’anic Concept of War (a book that made its way to the American mujahedin Jeffrey Leon Battle and October Martinique Lewis, and which carried a glowing endorsement from Pakistan’s then-future President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who said that it explained “the ONLY pattern of war” that a Muslim country could legitimately wage) delineates the same stages in the Qur’anic teaching about jihad: “The Muslim migration to Medina brought in its wake events and decisions of far-reaching significance and consequence for them. While in Mecca, they had neither been proclaimed an Ummah [community] nor were they granted the permission to take up arms against their oppressors. In Medina, a divine revelation proclaimed them an ‘Ummah’ and granted them the permission to take up arms against their oppressors. The permission was soon afterwards converted into a divine command making war a religious obligation for the faithful.”
Anyway, back to Esmay.
My objection to those who point to specific verses in the Koran that seem to endorse violence is that they're often quoted out of context. Christians who do that to their own Bible are annoying enough; those who do it to the holy works of other faiths are often practicing slander.
Would Esmay then say that Ibn Kathir, Ibn Juzayy, as well as Humaid and Malik are slandering their own faith? This is a widespread understanding within Islam. It is based, quite precisely, upon the context in which the various verses were revealed. Esmay is trying to pretend that Bryan Preston or I made it up, and then charge us with "Islamophobia" for doing so.
There is absolutely nothing anywhere in the Koran which says that it's okay to kill civilians in the name of Jihad--indeed, that's strongly forbidden.
I wonder if Dean Esmay has ever actually read the Qur'an. Anyway, what he is searching for is actually in the Hadith, such as this one that says: "During some of the Ghazawat [battles] of the Prophet a woman was found killed. Allah's Apostle disapproved the killing of women and children."
However, unfortunately in this as in so many other things Muhammad's words cut both ways, for there is also this: "The Prophet passed by me at a place called Al-Abwa or Waddan, and was asked whether it was permissible to attack the pagan warriors at night with the probability of exposing their women and children to danger. The Prophet replied, "They (i.e. women and children) are from them (i.e. pagans)."
In other words, if you're exposing the pagans to danger, you can expose their civilians to danger also. Certainly there is abundant testimony from Islamic history to show that Muslims understood Muhammad's words here as allowing for action against civilians.
Nor does Esmay even mention the widespread contention among Muslim theologians, even the "moderate" Qaradawi, that civilians aren't civilians at all under some circumstances.
And it absolutely forbids suicide, with no exceptions made for warfare. Which means that everything that suicide bombers do, or that the 9/11 hijackers did, is completely contrary to the plain text of the Koran....
It forbids suicide, but promises Paradise to those who "kill and are killed" for Allah (9:111). This is the rationale behind suicide bombing. Did I make it up? No, it is commonly quoted by jihadists. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, co-founder of Al-Qaeda, quotes it in recounting why he went to Afghanistan to wage jihad. Cherry-picked? Ripped out of context? Contrary to the plain text of the Qur'an? Great. But it's easy for Esmay to convince his credulous readers. It's harder for peaceful Muslims to convince jihadists of this, because the jihadists actually know what's in the Qur'an.
Much is often made, for example, of the fact that Muhammed was a warrior for part of his career. Those who point this out rarely note that almost all of Muhammed's campaigns were defensive in nature; that the one time he endorsed something that we'd consider an atrocity (the murder of the men of a Jewish tribe that had attacked the Muslim community repeatedly) was less horrible than things that Moses endorsed when he was a military leader in the Bible; that all Muhammed's military campaigns were marked by very strict rules against killing innocents; and yes, some were given the choice to become muslims or die, but only those who had repeatedly attacked muslims and violated treaties with muslims were ever forced to make such a choice. In his entire 10 year career as a warrior, Muhammed's body count was probably well under 1,000 total, almost all of it defensive. And once he took control of Mecca from those who'd been attacking his followers, his military career promptly ended. That is what most muslims believe, anyway, and most historians I've read see little reason to dispute it.
Esmay has asserted all this about Muhammad but provides no source citations, so in effect he's asking us just to take his word for it. Well, no thanks. As it happens, I have a book coming out very soon about all this: The Truth About Muhammad. It is entirely based on the earliest sources for Muhammad's life -- all written by pious Muslims. And all it says is just what they say about Muhammad's words and deeds. Anyone and everyone, even Dean Esmay, is invited to go back to those sources and see if I what I say about Muhammad is accurate. Anyway, in tracing Muhammad's career, it illuminates why jihadists invoke his example, and what moderate Muslims must address about that example in order to bring about genuine Islamic reform, instead of the shallow evasion and denial that Esmay and his ilk take for the real thing.