Recently the Boston Globe published two pieces pushing the prevailing assumption that the Bible and the Qur'an are equally likely to inspire those who believe in them to commit acts of violence -- or to act benevolently: "The other good book" on March 6, and "Dark passages: Does the harsh language in the Koran explain Islamic violence? Don't answer till you've taken a look inside the Bible," by Philip Jenkins on March 8.
Since almost everyone takes this for granted nowadays, it is odd that the Globe would think it necessary to shore it up with not one, but two pieces making this case. On the other hand, it is such a patently absurd and false proposition that, despite its popularity, it does need constant propping up.
Jenkins's thesis, of course, is that since there are violent passages in the Bible as well as in the Qur'an, and yet Jews and Christians are not committing acts of violence and justifying them with reference to their holy texts, therefore Muslims who commit acts of violence and justify them with reference to their holy texts must actually be motivated by something else.
It's a common view that many others have previously enunciated. When confronted with material from the Qur’an that calls upon Muslims to wage war against unbelievers, Islamic apologists and their non-Muslim allies frequently claim that such passages from have been “cherry-picked” from a holy book that teaches peace, and that they only seem to incite to violence when ripped out of context. Usually accompanying such claims is the assertion that the Bible is just as violent, if not more so, than the Qur’an. The Lutheran theologian Martin E. Marty has written disdainfully of “people who selectively quote the Qur’an to show how it commits Muslims to killing ‘us’ infidels.” He then goes on to enumerate numerous violent passages in the Bible, quipping: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor’s God or Book, nor witness at all until thou comest clean on what thy book portrays, a holy warrior God.”
As Ralph Peters put it, “As a believing Christian, I must acknowledge that there’s nothing in the Koran as merciless as God’s behavior in the Book of Joshua.”
While not going as far as Peters’ assertion that the Bible is actually more violent than the Qur’an, Dinesh D’Souza suggests that the Qur’an and the Bible are at least equivalent in their capacity to incite violence: “the Koran, like the Old Testament, has a number of passages recommending peace and others celebrating the massacre of the enemies of God.” The problem is that some people focus on the wrong ones. He says: “I realize that you can fish out this passage or that passage and make it sound like the Muslims want to convert or kill everybody. But that would be like taking passages out of the Old Testament to make Moses sound like Hitler.” D'Souza even claims that Moses would have pursued an aggressive policy of religious imperialism, a la Islamic jihad, if he had had the chance: “Moses wasn’t exactly a believer in religious freedom. When he came down from the mountain and discovered the Israelites worshipping the golden calf he basically ordered a massacre. Don’t you think that if Moses could he would have imposed the laws of Yahweh on the whole world? Of course he would.”
But is all this really true? Are these two prominent conservative thinkers, who after all are only echoing a widespread opinion, right that the Bible and the Qur’an are at least roughly equivalent in their capacity to inspire violence?
This is an important question, for it goes to the heart of whether or not the actual teachings of either religion has anything to do with the violence committed in its name. After all, that is not a question that can be determined wholly by examining the historical record of each religion – for in every religious tradition the teachings of the religion are one thing and the way they are and have been lived out is quite another. No body of people has ever lived in complete fidelity to any set of principles, religious or otherwise, and there never will be such a group of people. Moreover, a central tenet of Christianity is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). This is, as many have noted, one Christian dogma for which there is abundant empirical evidence: the dividing line between good and evil doesn’t run between one group and another, or one race and another, or one nation and another. Nor does it run between the adherents of one religion and those of another. It is said that the British writer and superlative wit G.K. Chesterton once responded to an invitation from the Times of London to write a piece about what is wrong with the world by writing: “Dear Sir, I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.” Chesterton wasn’t just being flip; he was expressing the fundamental Christian belief that the dividing line between good and evil actually runs through every human heart. With this as a core assumption, neither Christians nor anyone else should never be surprised by evil, even when it is perpetrated by Christians in the name of Christianity. That is the way human beings are.
Islam’s view of this is vastly different in some ways and identical in others. While acknowledging that any human being is capable of evil, the Qur’an says that Muslims are the “best of peoples” (3:110) while the unbelievers are the “vilest of creatures” (98:6). It is easy, if one takes such a worldview seriously, to see evil in others but have a harder time locating it in oneself. And that is indeed a recurring tendency in the Islamic world today – an unwillingness to engage in self-reflection and self-criticism, and to locate the source of all ills on a malignant outside force: “Zionists,” “the Great Satan,” and the like. Still, most Muslims, like most Christians, would acknowledge that the gap between theory and practice has sometimes been quite large, although that is an argument also made by jihadists, including those who in recent decades have spearheaded a revival of jihadist sentiment around the world by publishing material such as the tract “Jihad: the Forgotten Obligation.” In any case, the teachings of each religion – as those teachings have been understood by the mainstream sects of each faith -- will make it clear whether those who claim to be acting in the name of Christianity and Islam have a creditable claim to do so in fact, or if they are actually transgressing against the teachings of the religion they are claiming to defend.
Joshua: God mandates ethnic cleansing?
So is Peters right that “there’s nothing in the Koran as merciless as God’s behavior in the Book of Joshua”? It certainly seems so. Besieging Jericho, Joshua announces that the city is “devoted to the LORD for destruction” (Joshua 6:17). When it falls, Joshua and his men “utterly destroyed all in the city, both men and women, oxen, sheep, and asses, with the edge of the sword” (6:21). And Joshua warned: “Cursed before the LORD be the man that rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho” (6:26).
Later God tells Joshua: “You shall do to Ai and its king as you did to Jericho and its king,” except that this time they shouldn’t kill all the animals: “its spoil and its cattle you shall take as booty for yourselves” (8:2). Joshua complied: “When Israel had finished slaughtering all the inhabitants of Ai in the open wilderness where they pursued them and all of them to the very last had fallen by the edge of the sword, all Israel returned to Ai, and smote it with the edge of the sword. And all who fell that day, both men and women, were twelve thousand, all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back his hand, with which he stretched out the javelin, until he had utterly destroyed all the inhabitants of Ai. Only the cattle and the spoil of that city Israel took as their booty, according to the word of the LORD which he commanded Joshua” (8:24-27). Joshua similarly kills all the inhabitants of a number of other cities: Makkedah (10:28); Libnah (10:29-30); Lachish (10:31-2); Eglon (10:34-5); Hebron (10:36-7); and Debir (10:38-9); as well as Madon, Shimron, Achshaph, and Hazor (11:10-11).
Nowhere in all this is there a hint of any disapproval on the part of the writer or anyone in the book. Instead, we are told that in carrying out these massacres Joshua was just being obedient to God: “So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the LORD God of Israel commanded” (10:40).
Not just Joshua
Nor is the Book of Joshua the only apparently morally problematic portion of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. Chris Hedges says in his book American Fascists that many Christians “often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right.” The behavior of Joshua himself is rooted in earlier behavior, and other commands of the Lord. The Book of Numbers recounts that after the Israelites defeated the Midianites, they presented the captives and spoils of war to Moses. But the prophet “was angry with the officers of the army, the commanders of thousands and the commanders of hundreds, who had come from service in the war. Moses said to them, ‘Have you let all the women live?’” He reminded them that these women had earlier caused the Israelites to “act treacherously against the LORD.” Consequently, Moses told his men: “Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him. But all the young girls who have not known man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves” (31:14-18).
Later this command was extended to other enemies of the Israelites: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than yourselves, and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them; then you must utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, and show no mercy to them” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). God also tells the Israelites: “When you approach a city to fight against it, you shall offer it terms of peace. If it agrees to make peace with you and opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall become your forced labor and shall serve you. However, if it does not make peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. When the LORD your God gives it into your hand, you shall strike all the men in it with the edge of the sword. Only the women and the children and the animals and all that is in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as booty for yourself; and you shall use the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. Only in the cities of these peoples that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes” (Deuteronomy 20:10-17).
Besides passages apparently celebrating warfare and ethnic cleansing as sanctioned by almighty God, the books of Moses also contain other passages jarring to modern sensibilities. God commands, for example, that Sabbath-breakers be put to death: “And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Say to the people of Israel, You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; every one who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people’” (Exodus 31:12-14). So are idolaters. God tells Moses: “If there is found among you…a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it; then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abominable thing has been done in Israel, then you shall bring forth to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones” (Deuteronomy 17:2-5).
There is more. The Book of Exodus contains some brief guidelines for occasions in which “a man sells his daughter as a slave” (Exodus 21:7). And there is more, here and there, that has raised eyebrows not only in modern times but throughout history.
“Kill them all,” says the Lord?
But is the Bible really enjoining violence, both against nonbelievers and believers who commit sins deemed worthy of capital punishment? This question cannot be answered by an evaluation of the text alone, for that text does now and has never in history stood apart from the way believers have understood it and acted upon it. From that perspective, the arguments of Peters and D’Souza, and the many others who have said essentially the same thing, founder primarily upon one central fact: there are no armed Jewish or Christian groups anywhere in the world today who are committing acts of violence and justifying them by referring to these texts. Indeed, throughout history, these texts have never been taken as divine commands that either must be or may be put into practice by believers in a new age. All these passages, after all, are descriptive, not prescriptive. They nowhere command believers to imitate this behavior, or to believe under any circumstances that God wishes them to act as his instruments of judgment in any situation today.
Biblical scholars have posited several ways in which passages such as those in the Book of Joshua that appear to depict God transgressing against his own goodness can be understood by people of faith who believe that this material is divinely inspired. Some Biblical scholars have suggested that the Bible depicts a process of moral evolution – a gradual advance out of barbarism to the precepts of the Gospel. Others have adopted a posture of cultural relativism, arguing that what was acceptable for, or even incumbent upon, the Israelites in their particular time and place only applied to that time and place, not to all believers for all time. There are weaknesses in those and other such interpretations, but they reflect the fact that throughout history, rather than celebrating such biblical passages, Jews and Christians have regarded them as a problem to be solved. While interpretations of these passages differ widely among Jews and Christians, from the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity one understanding has remained dominant among virtually all believers: these passages are not commands for all generations to follow, and if they have any applicability at all, it is only in a spiritualized, parabolic sense.
This is clear from popular Scriptural commentaries and other popular treatments of this material. The Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible says that “the physical destruction of the enemy in obedience to the deity” was “practiced much less than a reading of Joshua might suggest” – and in any case, “it must be seen in light of the imperfect stage of moral development reached at that time.” Likewise the Navarre Bible, a Roman Catholic commentary series prepared by the theology faculty of the University of Navarre in Spain, calls the instructions to destroy whole cities “a policy which to us seems quite incomprehensible, savage and inhuman.” It says that “it needs to be seen in its historical context and to be set in the framework of the gradual development of revelation.” The commentary goes on to cite Jesus’ words -- “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) – and a spiritualized interpretation of Joshua’s battles by the sixteenth-century mystic St. John of the Cross.
The evangelical Christians Andy and Berit Kjos reflect the near-universal tendency to spiritualize such passages in a series of study questions on the Book of Joshua. In connection with Joshua 6:17 they ask: “What might you ‘utterly destroy’ in your own life in order to fully live the holy and victorious life in union with Christ?” This is similar to a footnote on Joshua 6:26 in the 1609 Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic English translation of the Bible: “Jericho, in the mystical sense, signifies iniquity: the sounding of the trumpets by the priests, the preaching of the word of God; by which the walls of Jericho are thrown down, when sinners are converted; and a dreadful curse will light on them who build them up again.”
Not only are such texts spiritualized; the literal sense is often directly rejected. The Rev. David Holwick of First Baptist Church in Ledgewood, New Jersey quotes the billionaire Andrew Carnegie: “I picked up the Bible just the other day and was reading the story of the times of Samuel. All sorts of ghastly incidents are related, and some passages are simply revolting to a mind accustomed to feel toward humanity as Christ felt. And the thing is that God is pictured as directing and helping it all. It is God who leads in the slaughter and He even inspires His children to the most unmerciful acts. Do not teach these parts to boys and girls as heroic deeds, to be admired and copied.” Holwick maintains that the God of the Old Testament is the same as that of the New, but agrees with Carnegie that such tales have no exemplary value for modern believers. “Too many atrocities have been done in God’s name,” he said, adding: “God doesn’t need human armies or politicians to win.”
In short, the consensus view among Jews and Christians for many centuries is that unless you happen to be a Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, or Jebusite, these Biblical passages simply do not apply to you. The Scriptures records God’s commands to the Israelites to make war against particular people only. However this may be understood, and however jarring it may be to modern sensibilities, it does not amount to any kind of marching orders for believers. That’s one principal reason why Jews and Christians haven’t formed terror groups around the world that quote these Scriptures to justify killing civilian non-combatants.
Violence in the New Testament?
Christopher Hitchens, in his entertaining atheist apologetic god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, surveys what he terms the “nightmare” of the Old Testament and then entitles his next chapter “The ‘New’ Testament Exceeds the Evil of the ‘Old’ One.” When it comes to backing up this assertion, however, all Hitchens offers is thin gruel: “Abraham,” he points out, “is ready to make a human sacrifice of his own firstborn.” Then he notes “a rumor” that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son,” concluding: “Gradually, these two myths begin to converge.”
How? In large-scale calls for human sacrifice? Even Hitchens at his most biting and indifferent to distinction and nuance doesn’t claim that. In his Old Testament chapter, he asks about the Ten Commandments: “Is it too modern to notice that there is nothing about the protection of children from cruelty, nothing about rape, nothing about slavery, and nothing about genocide? Or is it too exactingly ‘in context’ to notice that some of these very offenses are about to be positively recommended?” One might expect after that kind of buildup that the New Testament, since it exceeds the evil of the Old, must contain positive references not only to genocide and slavery, but also kicking puppies and pulling the wings off flies. Yet most of Hitchens’ New Testament chapter is taken up with disquisitions on the historicity, or lack thereof, of various portions of the narrative – including one which Hitchens seem rather to like, the story of Jesus showing mercy to the woman who is about to be stoned for adultery (John 7:53-8:11).
This is no accident. Those who comb the New Testament searching for incitement to violence come away disappointed. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the fisherman who stops off at the market to buy a fresh fish so as to mask his failure at the lake, some Islamic apologists and non-Muslim purveyors of moral equivalence claim to find even in the New Testament passages that exhort believers to commit acts of violence. They most often point to two passages:
“I tell you that to everyone who has, more shall be given, but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence” (Luke 19:26-27). Of course, the fallacy here is that these are the words of a king in a parable, not Jesus’ instructions to His followers, but such subtleties are often ignored in the modern communications age.
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. I am sent to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law” (Matthew 10:34-35). If this passage is really calling for any literal violence, it would seem to be intra-familial jihad. To invoke it as the equivalent of the Qur’an’s jihad passages, which number over a hundred, is absurd: even the Crusaders at their most venal and grasping didn’t invoke passages like these.
Also, given the completely peaceful message of Jesus, it is clear that he meant “a sword” in an allegorical and metaphorical way. To interpret this text literally is to misunderstand Jesus, who, unlike Muhammad, did not take part in battles. It fails to recognize the poetry of the Bible, which is everywhere. But historically, even when they have committed violence in the name of God and the Church, Christians have not invoked such passages to justify what they were doing. These passages have never been taken as marching orders.
Nor have the passages of the Revelation to St. John that paint a bloody end times scenario of death and judgment; four angels “kill a third of mankind” (9:15); three plagues kill another third; and “the rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot either see or hear or walk; nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their immorality or their thefts” (9:18, 20-21). Jesus himself is depicted as a leader of armies: “He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses. From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:13-15).
Yet here again, nowhere does any of this amount to a call to action. While God is depicted as exacting judgment and punishing the wicked, nowhere does he order Christians to enforce his commands on his behalf. Likewise the popular Left Behind series, which dramatizes the events recounted in Revelation from an evangelical Christian perspective, doesn’t either depict Christians killing their non-Christian neighbors or order them to do so. But that isn’t enough for Chris Hedges, who insists that “Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds.” Yet since he does not and cannot produce any evidence of Christians either preaching or perpetrating violence and justifying this with reference to the hateful apocalyptic texts he invokes, the necessity for Christian leaders to “denounce” these passages of Scripture is perhaps less urgent than the necessity for Muslim leaders to confront the jihadist use of Islamic Scripture, and to formulate positive ways these texts can be reinterpreted so that they no longer have as much power to incite to violence as they do today.
But the Bible has made people commit violent acts – hasn’t it?
Any believer in the Christian doctrine of sin will agree that no human endeavor can be free of base actions and base motives. And certainly Christians have committed violent acts in the name of Christianity. But have they done so in obedience to Christian Scripture and the teachings of the various Christian sects, or in defiance of those Scriptures and teachings? During the Crusades, it became customary for those who joined the effort to be referred to as “taking up their cross,” echoing Jesus’ statement: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).
But on its face, of course, this says nothing about war or violence of any kind, and has been understood throughout history as referring primarily to the Christian’s struggle to conform his life to the demands of the Gospel. And so it is with all Biblical passages that the Crusaders and Crusader theologians invoked: they often performed a reverse of the spiritualization we saw in connection with the Book of Joshua, taking what are clearly spiritual passages as if they were referring to physical warfare. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), extends St. Paul’s New Testament exhortation to “take the whole armor of God…having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (Ephesians 6:13-14), which clearly refers to spiritual warfare, in physical terms, and militarizes Paul’s longing to be with Christ, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:21, 23). He also refers to Paul’s insistence that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39) and “whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Romans 14:8):
He indeed is a fearless knight, and one secure from any quarter, since his soul is dressed in an armor of faith just as his body is dressed in an armor of steel. Since he is well protected by both kinds of arms, he fears neither the demon nor man. Nor is he afraid of death, since he longs to die. Why should he fear whether he lives or dies, since for him life is Christ and death is a reward? Faithfully and freely does he go forth on Christ’s behalf, but he would rather be dissolved and be with Christ: such is the obviously better thing. So go forth in safety, knights, and drive out the enemies of the cross of Christ with fearless intention, certain that neither death nor life can separate you from God’s love, which Jesus Christ embodies; in every moment of danger, fulfill through your own actions the principle: ‘Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
St. Bernard goes on in language reminiscent of that used in his day and today to exhort jihad warriors to fight on all the more valiantly, for their rewards will be great on earth if they are victorious and in heaven if they aren’t:
How glorious the victors returned from battle! How blessed those martyrs who died in battle! Rejoice, brave fighter, if you live and conquer in the Lord; but rather exult and glory, if you die and are joined to the Lord. Life can be fruitful and victory can be glorious; but sacred death is properly to be preferred to either, for if ‘they are blessed who die in the Lord,’ are they not much more so who die on the Lord’s behalf?
Perhaps those who believe that any holy text can be used to justify anything will find support for their views in St. Bernard’s usage of St. Paul here. However, while Bernard is able to marshal Scriptural passages for the idea that God rewards martyrs, and that God is the Lord of both the living and the dead, he does not and cannot adduce any Scripture in support of his central assumption: that warfare in the name of Christ is justified. The fact that he must instead resort to the physicalization of passages about spiritual warfare only makes more obvious the fact that can have no recourse to any Christian martial tradition, or doctrine of warfare against and conquest of unbelievers.
In Islam, however, the situation is quite different.
Violence in the Qur’an?
Any Muslim counterparts to Bernard of Clairvaux, in exhorting Muslims to wage jihad warfare, need not content themselves with interpreting in connection with actual warfare passages that refer to spiritual warfare. For in contrast to the Bible, the Qur’an exhorts believers to fight unbelievers without specifying anywhere in the text that only certain unbelievers are to be fought, or only for a certain period of time, or some other distinction. Taking the texts at face value, the command to make war against unbelievers is open-ended and universal.
Osama bin Laden, who is only the most renowned and notorious exponent of a terror network that extends from Indonesia to Nigeria and into Western Europe and the Americas, quotes the Qur’an copiously in his communiqués. In his 1996 “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places,” he quotes seven Qur’an verses: 3:145; 47:4-6; 2:154; 9:14; 47:19; 8:72; and the notorious “Verse of the Sword,” 9:5. In 2003, on the first day of the Muslim holy day Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, he began a sermon: “Praise be to Allah who revealed the verse of the Sword to his servant and messenger [the Prophet Muhammad], in order to establish truth and abolish falsehood.”
One pro-Osama website, the now-defunct waaqiah.com, put it this way in 2002: “The truth is that a Muslim who reads the Qur’an with devotion is determined to reach the battlefield in order to attain the reality of Jihad. It is solely for this reason that the Kufaar [unbelievers] conspire to keep the Muslims far away from understanding the Qur’an, knowing that Muslims who understand the Qur’an will not distance themselves from Jihad.”
Of course, the devil can quote Scripture for his own purpose, but Osama’s use of these and other passages in his messages is consistent with traditional Islamic understandings of the Qur’an. When they read their Bibles, as we have seen, modern-day Jews and Christians simply don’t understand the passages cited or others as exhorting them to violent actions against unbelievers. This is the result of the influence of interpretative traditions that have for centuries moved away from literalism regarding these passages. But in Islam there is no comparable interpretative tradition. The jihad passages in the Qur’an are anything but a dead letter. In Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere, a key recruiting ground for jihad terrorist groups is the Islamic school: the students learn that they must wage jihad warfare, and then these groups give them the opportunity. They are made to understand that passages such as “slay the unbelievers wherever you find them” (Qur’an 9:5) and “Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks; at length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly on them” (Qur’an 47:4) are words they need to take to heart and carry out in order to be pleasing to Allah.
The scholar Ibn Warraq, an ex-Muslim, author of Why I Am Not a Muslim, and editor of several collections of scholarly essays on the Qur’an and Muhammad, calls the Qur’an the most “gnomic, elusive, and allusive of holy scriptures” — not least because people seem to be able to read it and come to diametrically opposite conclusions about what it says.
Some of these conclusions may have had motivations other than the purely theological. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, the Detroit Free Press told readers that “the Quran teaches nonviolence.” This was repeated in essence by George W. Bush when he said that “Islam is peace,” and this quickly hardened into a strict orthodoxy that could not be questioned in the mainstream. Only a few dared to sound any sour notes. Christian Broadcasting Network spokesman and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson drew vehement and indignant criticism when he declared: “I’m very familiar with what goes on in the Islamic world, where our reporters are all over that area, and it’s clear from the teachings of the Koran and also from the history of Islam that it’s anything but peaceful.” Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham also drew fire — as well as bloody riots in India and a call for their deaths from a Muslim official in Iran — for similar remarks.
Tolerance in the Qur’an
The evidence of the Qur’anic text itself goes both ways. Within the Muslim holy book one finds verses devoted to peace and tolerance — and also abundant verses devoted to violent intolerance.
Live-and-let-live tolerance appears in a chapter of the Qur’an that was revealed to Muhammad early in his prophetic career (the Qur’an is not arranged in chronological or narrative order, but generally from the longest chapter – sura -- to the shortest): “Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion” (109:1-6).
Other verses add to this seeming indifference the contention that Allah will ultimately judge the unbelievers and cast them into hell. Thus Allah tells Muhammad not to waste his time arguing with those who reject his message, but to leave them in peace until that terrible day: “So leave them alone until they encounter that Day of theirs, wherein they shall (perforce) swoon (with terror)” (52:45-47; the sections in parentheses are added by the Muslim translator so as to express more precisely the sense of the original).
This counsel is repeated in several places in the Qur’an: “And have patience with what they say, and leave them with noble (dignity). And leave Me (alone to deal with) those in possession of the good things of life, who (yet) deny the Truth; and bear with them for a little while” (73:10-11).
Above all, no Muslim should forcibly convert an unbeliever: “Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things” (2:256). Following this celebrated verse comes another threat of hell: “Allah is the Protector of those who have faith: from the depths of darkness He will lead them forth into light. Of those who reject faith the patrons are the evil ones: from light they will lead them forth into the depths of darkness. They will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein (for ever)” (2:257).
Since Jews and Christians will face this dreadful judgment, Allah admonishes his prophet not to argue with them. Instead, he is to emphasize that he believes in the same God they do: “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book [that is, primarily Jews and Christians], except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam)’” (29:46).
Fighting in self-defense
While those verses counsel a form of tolerance, albeit accompanied by threats of hellfire, that tolerance was not to be exercised in all cases. As Muhammad’s prophetic career went on, and particularly after his flight to Medina and establishment there of the first Islamic political and military entity, he began to receive Qur’anic revelations allowing Muslims to fight under certain circumstances. The necessity of self-defense is emphasized in the Qur’an’s eighth chapter, which is entitled Al-Anfal (“The Spoils of War”): “Remember thy Lord inspired the angels (with the message): ‘I am with you: give firmness to the Believers: I will instill terror into the hearts of the Unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them.’ This is because they contended against Allah and His Messenger: If any contend against Allah and His Messenger, Allah is strict in punishment. Thus (will it be said): ‘Taste ye then of the (punishment): for those who resist Allah, is the penalty of the Fire.’ O ye who believe! When ye meet the Unbelievers in hostile array, never turn your backs to them. If any do turn his back to them on such a day — unless it be in a stratagem of war, or to retreat to a troop (of his own) — he draws on himself the wrath of Allah, and his abode is Hell, an evil refuge (indeed)!” (8:12-16).
Another verse commands the Muslim community to defend not only itself but also houses of worship — not just mosques, but all kinds: “Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and Allah is indeed able to give them victory; Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is Allah — for had it not been for Allah’s repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. Verily Allah helpeth one who helpeth Him. Lo! Allah is Strong, Almighty” (22:39-40).
The Qur’an returns elsewhere to this theme of self-defense. “Fight in the cause of Allah those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for Allah loveth not transgressors [Another prominent Muslim translation renders this as “begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.] And slay them wherever ye catch them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out; for tumult and oppression are worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred Mosque, unless they (first) fight you there; but if they fight you, slay them. Such is the reward of those who suppress faith. But if they cease, Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful. And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in Allah; but if they cease, Let there be no hostility except to those who practice oppression” (2:190-193). The command to fight against “those who fight you” until “there prevail justice and faith in Allah” (this is how a popular translation of the Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali renders the verse; the Arabic is closer to the rendering of another Muslim translator, Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, who has it that Muslims should fight until “religion is for Allah,” as Pickthall has it) indicates when Muslims should stop fighting against unbelievers: not when a peace treaty has been concluded, or when negotiations have settled disputed issues, but when Allah’s religion prevails. Throughout history, Muslim jurists and theologians have understood this to refer to Islamic law being instituted over a society.
Significant also for the understanding of jihad as self-defense is the following verse, which ‘Ali’s translation of the Qur’an renders in part: “If then any one transgresses the prohibition against you, transgress ye likewise against him” (2:194). Pickthall translates this more explicitly: “And one who attacketh you, attack him in like manner as he attacked you.” This is a foundation for the revenge culture that dominates so much of the Islamic world.
Fight is defensive, but not optional: “Fighting is prescribed for you, and ye dislike it. But it is possible that ye dislike a thing which is good for you, and that ye love a thing which is bad for you. But Allah knoweth, and ye know not” (2:216).
Nor should this defensive struggle be limited in scope. Allah even tells Muhammad to take no prisoners: “It is not fitting for a prophet that he should have prisoners of war until he hath thoroughly subdued the land.” This verse comes in the context of warning the Muslims not to fight simply for booty: “Ye look for the temporal goods of this world; but Allah looketh to the Hereafter: And Allah is Exalted in might, Wise” (8:67). At the battle of Uhud against the pagan Quraysh tribe of Mecca, Muhammad’s own tribe which had rejected his prophetic claim, the Muslims failed to destroy their enemies utterly because of their lust for the spoils of war: “Allah did indeed fulfil His promise to you when ye with His permission were about to annihilate your enemy, until ye flinched and fell to disputing about the order, and disobeyed it after He brought you in sight (of the booty) which ye covet. Among you are some that hanker after this world and some that desire the Hereafter. Then did He divert you from your foes in order to test you but He forgave you: For Allah is full of grace to those who believe” (3:152).
However, the prohibition against taking prisoners doesn’t seem to be absolute, since Allah also gives the Muslims permission to take the wives of those they have slain in battle as concubines: “O Prophet! We have made lawful to thee thy wives to whom thou hast paid their dowers; and those whom thy right hand possesses [i.e., slaves] out of the prisoners of war whom Allah has assigned to thee” (33:50).
Warfare in this context still must be limited. One verse that has been frequently quoted since 9/11 forbids Muslims to take innocent life: “Whosoever killeth a human being for other than manslaughter or corruption in the earth, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind” (5:32).
Allah calls his people to be fearless in the face of death in view of the rewards he offers afterward: “And if ye are slain, or die, in the way of Allah, forgiveness and mercy from Allah are far better than all they could amass. And if ye die, or are slain, Lo! It is unto Allah that ye are brought together” (3:157-158). This reward is guaranteed to those who sacrifice for Allah: “He who forsakes his home in the cause of Allah, finds in the earth many a refuge, wide and spacious: should he die as a refugee from home for Allah and His Messenger, His reward becomes due and sure with Allah: and Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful” (4:100).
Indeed, those who wage jihad rank highest among the believers: “Do ye make the giving of drink to pilgrims, or the maintenance of the Sacred Mosque, equal to (the pious service of) those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and strive with might and main in the cause of Allah [jihad fi sabil Allah]? They are not comparable in the sight of Allah: and Allah guides not those who do wrong. Those who believe, and suffer exile and strive with might and main, in Allah’s cause [jihad fi sabil Allah], with their goods and their persons, have the highest rank in the sight of Allah: they are the people who will achieve (salvation)” (9:19-20). Jihad fi sabil Allah refers in Islamic theology to taking up arms for the Muslim cause.
Offensive warfare mandated by the Qur’an?
Alongside the verses enjoining warfare in self-defense, the Qur’an includes a cluster of verses containing general and open-ended commands to fight: “O ye who believe! Fight the unbelievers who gird you about, and let them find firmness in you: and know that Allah is with those who fear Him” (9:123).
“O Prophet! Strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm against them. Their abode is Hell, an evil refuge indeed” (9:73). The Arabic word translated here as “strive hard” is jahidi, a verbal form of the noun jihad.
The command applies first to fighting those who worship other gods besides Allah: “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful” (9:5).
However, Muslims must fight Jews and Christians as well, although the Qur’an recognizes that as “People of the Book” they have received genuine revelations from Allah: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [the special tax on non-Muslims] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued” (9:29).
But aren’t you just cherry-picking violent passages?
Chris Hedges recounts that Gary Frazier of Discovery Ministries, a Christian fundamentalist group in Texas, told an “End Times conference” that “the second sign of the End Times” would be “the rise of radical Islam.” According to Hedges, Frazier told a rapt crowd that some Muslims “want to export their religion and achieve their goal of ‘world domination.’” The cultural contempt is palpable in Hedges’ account: he apparently believes that only people like Gary Frazier are really concerned about any threat from Islamic jihadists, and the disdain he has for Frazier carries over to Frazier’s concern about Islam.
Similarly, when I list Qur’anic passages that counsel violence, I am often accused of “cherry-picking” the worst of such passages in order to try to portray Islam in the worst possible light, and ignoring similar material in the Bible. In both cases, however, the question of whether or not one is “cherry-picking” can only adequately be solved by recourse to the mainstream interpretative traditions that have guided believers’ understanding of their respective holy books. And as we have seen, mainstream Bible commentators on both sides of the Reformation divide do not consider the Bible’s most violent passages to contain anything like marching orders for believers to make war against unbelievers.
In regard to the Qur’an, on the other hand, the situation is very different. It is not Gary Frazier – or Robert Spencer – who is “cherry-picking” violent passages from the Qur’an. Muslims themselves are doing so, or rather, have recourse to a venerable and mainstream mode of Qur’anic interpretation that exalts the violent verses at the expense of the peaceful ones -- and this is one reason why the jihadist movement is growing all over the Islamic world today.
With material enjoining both, can ultimately it be said rightly that the Qur’an preaches either tolerance or war? Very early in the history of Islam, Muslims noticed and began to grapple with how Muhammad’s messages changed in character over the course of his prophetic career, which began in the year 610 A.D. and ended with his death 632. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, a pious Muslim named Muhammad Ibn Ishaq Ibn Yasar (Ibn Ishaq, 704-773), explains that originally Muhammad “had not been given permission to fight or allowed to shed blood…. He had simply been ordered to call men to God and to endure insult and forgive the ignorant. The Quraysh had persecuted his followers, seducing some from their religion, and exiling others from their country. They had to choose whether to give up their religion, be maltreated at home, or to flee the country, some to Abyssinia, others to Medina.”
But as tensions increased between Muhammad and the Quraysh, the pagan Arab tribe of which Muhammad was a member but which had rejected his prophethood, the time for forgiveness ended:
When Quraysh became insolent towards God and rejected His gracious purpose, accused His prophet of lying, and ill treated and exiled those who served Him and proclaimed His unity, believed in His prophet, and held fast to His religion, He gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged them and treated them badly.
Ibn Ishaq then explains the progression of Qur’anic revelation about warfare. First, he explains, Allah allowed Muslims to wage defensive warfare:
Assuredly God will help those who help Him. God is Almighty. Those who if we make them strong in the land will establish prayer, pay the poor-tax, enjoin kindness, and forbid iniquity. To God belongs the end of matters.” The meaning is: “I have allowed them to fight only because they have been unjustly treated while their sole offence against men has been that they worship God. When they are in the ascendant they will establish prayer, pay the poor-tax, enjoin kindness, and forbid iniquity, i.e. the Prophet and his companions all of them.”
“When they are in the ascendant,” in other words, they will establish an Islamic state, in which Muslims will pray regularly, pay the poor-tax (zakat), and institute Islamic laws (“forbid iniquity”). But that was not Allah’s last word on the circumstances in which Muslims should fight:
Then God sent down to him: “Fight them so that there be no more seduction,” i.e. until no believer is seduced from his religion. “And the religion is God’s”, i.e. Until God alone is worshipped.
The Qur’an verse Ibn Ishaq quotes here (2:193) commands much more than defensive warfare: Muslims must fight until “the religion is God’s” – that is, until Allah alone is worshipped. Later Islamic law, based on this development in the doctrine of jihad warfare during Muhammad’s career, would offer non-Muslims three options: conversion to Islam, subjugation as inferiors under Islamic law, or warfare. According to a Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, “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 quoted above 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 of Saudi Arabia, to which Sheikh ‘Abdullah belongs, and which many Western analysts imagine to have originated Islamic doctrines of warfare against unbelievers. Jihad theorist Sayyid Qutb, who was not a Wahhabi, subscribes to the same view of the Qur’an. In his jihad manifesto Milestones, quotes at length from the great medieval scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350), who, says Qutb, “has summed up the nature of Islamic Jihaad.” Ibn Qayyim outlines the stages of the Muhammad’s prophetic career: “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership, he called people to God through preaching, without fighting or Jizyah, and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate, and later permission was given to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.”
Qutb summarizes the stages: “Thus, according to the explanation by Imam Ibn Qayyim, the Muslims were first restrained from fighting; then they were permitted to fight; then they were commanded to fight against the aggressors; and finally they were commanded to fight against all the polytheists.” He further quotes Ibn Qayyim as emphasizing the need to wage war against and subjugate non-Muslims, particularly the Jewish and Christian “People of the Book”: “After the command for Jihaad came, the non-believers were divided into three categories: one, those with whom there was peace; two, the people with whom the Muslims were at war; and three, the Dhimmies....It was also explained that war should be declared against those from among the ‘People of the Book’ who declare open enmity, until they agree to pay Jizyah or accept Islam. Concerning the polytheists and the hypocrites, it was commanded in this chapter that Jihaad be declared against them and that they be treated harshly.” Qutb says that if someone rejects Islam, “then it is the duty of Islam to fight him until either he is killed or until he declares his submission.”
Related to this idea of three stages of development in the Qur’anic concept of jihad is the Islamic doctrine of abrogation (naskh). This is the idea that Allah can change or cancel what he tells Muslims: “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?” (Qur’an 2:106). According to this idea, the violent verses of sura 9, including the Verse of the Sword (9:5), abrogate the peaceful verses, because they were revealed later in Muhammad’s prophetic career: in fact, most Muslim authorities agree that the ninth sura was the very last section of the Qur’an to be revealed.
In line with this, some classical Islamic theologians asserted that the Verse of the Sword abrogates no less than 124 more peaceful and tolerant verses of the Qur’an. Tafsir al-Jalalayn, a commentary on the Qur’an by the respected 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), asserts that the Qur’an’s ninth sura “was sent down when security was removed by the sword.” Another mainstream and respected Qur’an commentator, Isma’il bin ‘Amr bin Kathir al Dimashqi (1301-1372), known popularly as Ibn Kathir, declares that sura 9:5 “abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty, and every term….No idolater had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara’ah [the ninth sura] was revealed.” Ibn Juzayy (d. 1340), yet another Qur’an commentator whose works are still read in the Islamic world, agrees: the Verse of the Sword’s purpose is “abrogating every peace treaty in the Qur’an.”
Ibn Kathir makes this clear 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” (sura 43:88-89). Ibn Kathir explains: “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 end of the passage. Ibn Kathir then takes up the last part: “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.”
That work is not yet complete.
All this means that warfare against unbelievers until they either become Muslim or “pay the jizya” — the special tax on non-Muslims in Islamic law — “with willing submission” (Qur’an 9:29) is the Qur’an’s last word on jihad. Mainstream Islamic tradition has interpreted this as Allah’s enduring marching orders to the human race: the Islamic umma (community) must exist in a state of perpetual war, punctuated only by temporary truces, with the non-Muslim world.
All four principal Sunni schools agree on the importance of jihad. Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani (d. 996), a Maliki jurist, declared:
Jihad is a precept of Divine institution. Its performance by certain individuals may dispense others from it. We Malikis maintain that it is preferable not to begin hostilities with the enemy before having invited the latter to embrace the religion of Allah except where the enemy attacks first. They have the alternative of either converting to Islam or paying the poll tax (jizya), short of which war will be declared against them.”
Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328), a Hanbali jurist who is a favorite of Osama bin Laden and other modern-day jihadists:
Since lawful warfare is essentially jihad and since its aim is that the religion is God’s entirely and God’s word is uppermost, therefore according to all Muslims, those who stand in the way of this aim must be fought. As for those who cannot offer resistance or cannot fight, such as women, children, monks, old people, the blind, handicapped and their likes, they shall not be killed unless they actually fight with words (e.g. by propaganda) and acts (e.g. by spying or otherwise assisting in the warfare).”
The Hanafi school sounds the same notes:
It is not lawful to make war upon any people who have never before been called to the faith, without previously requiring them to embrace it, because the Prophet so instructed his commanders, directing them to call the infidels to the faith, and also because the people will hence perceive that they are attacked for the sake of religion, and not for the sake of taking their property, or making slaves of their children, and on this consideration it is possible that they may be induced to agree to the call, in order to save themselves from the troubles of war… If the infidels, upon receiving the call, neither consent to it nor agree to pay capitation tax, it is then incumbent on the Muslims to call upon God for assistance, and to make war upon them, because God is the assistant of those who serve Him, and the destroyer of His enemies, the infidels, and it is necessary to implore His aid upon every occasion; the Prophet, moreover, commands us so to do.
And so does the Shafi’i scholar Abu’l Hasan al-Mawardi (d. 1058), who echoes Muhammad’s instructions to invite the unbelievers to accept Islam or fight them if they refuse:
The mushrikun [infidels] of Dar al-Harb (the arena of battle) are of two types: First, those whom the call of Islam has reached, but they have refused it and have taken up arms. The amir of the army has the option of fighting them…in accordance with what he judges to be in the best interest of the Muslims and most harmful to the mushrikun… Second, those whom the invitation to Islam has not reached, although such persons are few nowadays since Allah has made manifest the call of his Messenger…it is forbidden to…begin an attack before explaining the invitation to Islam to them, informing them of the miracles of the Prophet and making plain the proofs so as to encourage acceptance on their part; if they still refuse to accept after this, war is waged against them and they are treated as those whom the call has reached…
These are all extremely old authorities – such that one might reasonably assume that whatever they say couldn’t possibly still be the consensus of the Islamic mainstream. The laws of the United States have evolved considerably since the adoption of the Constitution, which itself has been amended. So why shouldn’t this be true of Islamic law as well? Many observers assume that it must be, and that Al-Qaeda’s departure from mainstream Islam must be located in its preference for the writings of ancient jurists rather than modern ones. But in this, unfortunately, they fail to reckon with the implications of the closing of the gates of ijtihad.
Ijtihad is the process of arriving at a decision on a point of Islamic law through study of the Qur’an and Sunnah. From the beginning of Islam, the authoritative study of such sources was reserved to a select number of scholars who fulfilled certain qualifications, including a comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as knowledge of the principle of analogical reasoning (qiyas) by which legal decisions are made; knowledge of the consensus (ijma) on any given question of Muhammad, his closest companions, and the scholars of the past; and more, including living a blameless life. The founders of the schools of Islamic jurisprudence are among the small number of scholars -- mujtahedin -- thus qualified to perform ijithad. But they all lived very long ago; for many centuries, independent study of the Qur’an and Sunnah has been discouraged among Muslims, who are instead expected to adhere to the rulings of one of those established schools. Since the death of Ahmed ibn Hanbal, from whom the Hanbali school takes its name, in 855 A.D., no one has been recognized by the Sunni Muslim community as a mujtahid of the first class – that is, someone who is qualified to originate legislation of his own, based on the Qur’an and Sunnah but not upon the findings of earlier mujtahedin. Islamic scholar Cyril Glasse notes that “‘the door of ijtihad is closed’ as of some nine hundred years, and since then the tendency of jurisprudence (fiqh) has been to produce only commentaries upon commentaries and marginalia.”
Shi’ite Muslims have never accepted that ijtihad is a thing of the past. Thus it is with a slight tone of disapproval that the Shi’ite scholar Murtada Mutahhari notes of the Sunnis:
The right of ijtihad did not last for long among the Sunnis. Perhaps the cause of this was the difficulty which occurred in practice: for if such a right were to continue [for any great length of time], especially if ta`awwul and the precedence of something over the texts were to be permitted, and everyone were permitted to change or interpret according to his own opinion, nothing would remain of the way of Islam (din al islam). Perhaps it is for this reason that the right of independent ijtihad was gradually withdrawn, and the view of the Sunni `ulama became that they instructed people to practice taqlid of only the four mujtahids, the four famous Imams - Abu Hanifa [d.150/767], al Shafi`i; [d.204/820], Malik b. Anas [d.179/795] and Ahmad b. Hanbal [d.241/855] - and forbade people to follow anyone apart from these four persons. This measure was first taken in Egypt in the seventh hijri century, and then taken up in the rest of the lands of Islam.
The Imam Hassan Qazwini, director of the Islamic Center of America, considers this closing off of new interpretations of Islamic law to be a serious error. According to David Smock, director of the Religion and Peacemaking Initiative of the United States Institute of Peace:
One of the gravest mistakes Muslims have committed, according to Qazwini, is closing the doors of ijtihad. They have limited legal interpretation to only four prominent scholars: Malik Ibn Anas, Abu Hanifa al-No‘man, Muhammad Ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i, and Ahmad Ibn Hambal—the heads of the Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi‘i, and Hambali [sic] schools of thought. The motivation for this was political. During the Abbasid Dynasty (750–1258 CE), the Abbasids decided to outlaw all other sects in order to strictly control religion and worship, as well as political matters.
Closing the doors of ijtihad has had extremely detrimental ramifications for the Muslim world. According to Qazwini, this decision has resulted in chronic intellectual stagnation, as thousands of potential mujtahids and scholars have been prohibited from offering workable solutions to newly emerging problems. Muslim thinkers have become captive to rules that were made long ago, leaving little scope for liberal or innovative thought.
Other Muslims, however, disagree. Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, in his consideration of Islam and modernity, Ideals and Realities of Islam, says: “Certain modernists over the past century have tried to change the Shari‘ah, to reopen the gate of ijtihad, with the aim of incorporating modern practices into the Law and limiting the function of Shari‘ah to personal life. All of these activities emanate from a particular attitude of spiritual weakness vis-à-vis the world and surrender to the world. Those who are conquered by such a mentality want to make the Shari‘ah ‘conform to the times,’ which means to the whims and fancies of men and the ever changing human nature which has made ‘the times.’ They do not realize that it is the Shari‘ah according to which society should be modeled not vice versa.”
In any case, whether it is a manifestation of “chronic intellectual stagnation” or fidelity to the Sharia, along with the stasis in other areas there has been a lack of development in the doctrines of jihad. Even Islamic apologist Karen Armstrong admits that “Muslim jurists...taught that, because there was only one God, the whole world should be united in one polity and it was the duty of all Muslims to engage in a continued struggle to make the world accept the divine principles and create a just society.” Non-Muslims “should be made to surrender to God’s rule. Until this had been achieved, Islam must engage in a perpetual warlike effort.” But, she says, “this martial theology was laid aside in practice and became a dead letter once it was clear that the Islamic empire had reached the limits of its expansion about a hundred years after Muhammad’s death.”
The problem is that however much of a dead letter it became in practice during times of weakness in the Islamic world, this doctrine of Islamic supremacism was never reformed or rejected. No one seems to have told the warriors of jihad who besieged Europe through the seventeenth century that the Islamic empire had already reached the limits of its expansion centuries before. No one seems to have told the modern-day warriors of Islam from Bosnia to the Philippines that jihad is a dead letter, and that Islam isn’t doing any more expanding. The Saudi Sheikh Muhammad Saalih al-Munajid (1962-), whose lectures and Islamic rulings (fatawa) circulate widely throughout the Islamic world, demonstrates this in a discussion of whether Muslims should force others to accept Islam. In considering Qur’an 2:256 (“There is no compulsion in religion,”) the Sheikh quotes Qur’an 9:29, as well as 8:39 (“And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and polytheism, i.e. worshipping others besides Allaah), and the religion (worship) will all be for Allaah Alone [in the whole of the world]”), and the Verse of the Sword. Of the latter, Sheikh Muhammad says simply: “This verse is known as Ayat al-Sayf (the verse of the sword). These and similar verses abrogate the verses which say that there is no compulsion to become Muslim.”
Underscoring the fact that none of this is merely of historical interest is another Shafi’i manual of Islamic law that in 1991 was certified by the highest authority in Sunni Islam, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community.” This manual, ‘Umdat al-Salik (available in English as Reliance of the Traveller), spends a considerable amount of time explaining jihad as “war against non-Muslims.” It spells out the nature of this warfare in quite specific terms: “the caliph makes war upon Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians . . . until they become Muslim or pay the non-Muslim poll tax.” It adds a comment by a Jordanian jurist that corresponds to Muhammad’s instructions to call the unbelievers to Islam before fighting them: the caliph wages this war only “provided that he has first invited [Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians] to enter Islam in faith and practice, and if they will not, then invited them to enter the social order of Islam by paying the non-Muslim poll tax (jizya) . . . while remaining in their ancestral religions.”
Also, if there is no caliph, Muslims must still wage jihad. And there is something else also. In Islamic law, jihad warfare may be defensive or offensive. Jihad is ordinarily fard kifaya – an obligation on the Muslim community as a whole, from which some are freed if others take it up. Jihad becomes fard ayn, or obligatory on every individual Muslim to aid in any way he can, if a Muslim land is attacked. That is what jihadists argue today – that the American presence in Iraq and Afghanistan makes jihad fard ayn, or obligatory on every individual Muslim. But this is just jihad for the defense of Muslim lands, although the defensive aspect of jihad activity is often interpreted quite elastically. It is the province of the caliph, who for Sunni Muslims was the successor of Muhammad as the political, military, and religious leader of the Muslim community, to authorize the waging of offensive jihad to spread the rule of Islamic law into non-Muslim lands – but the caliphate was abolished by the secular Turkish government in 1924.
This is a primary reason why jihadists want to restore the caliphate. In 1996 the Taliban’s Mullah Omar went to the shrine of the Respectable Cloak of Muhammad in Kandahar and stood on the roof of the shrine wrapped in the cloak. His followers proclaimed him Emir al Momineen, or leader of the believers – a title of the caliph. So far, however, only a jihadist group in Algeria has joined the Taliban in accepting Mullah Omar as caliph.
In any case, the desire to restore the caliphate ultimately highlights the expansionist, imperialist, totalitarian, globalist aims of the jihad movement, even as today it presents itself as a defensive action against Western evils. That expansionism is based on Qur’anic passages such as 9:29 and the life and teachings of Muhammad. 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.”
Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, a theology professor at Damascus University, echoes the classic Islamic legal tenet that Muslims can legitimately wage war against those who resist the proclamation of Islam in his book Jihad in Islam: How to Understand and Practice It. Al-Buti considers at great length the question of whether this armed struggle can be undertaken “to avert belligerency” or “to put an end to infidelity.” In other words, is jihad purely defensive, or can it be offensive? (Al-Buti, however, carefully defines “to avert belligerency” to allow for a pre-emptive strike against a perceived imminent attack.)
Al-Buti bases his discussion of this question on the Qur’an and Islamic traditions. After a thorough discussion of these hadiths and other elements of Muslim tradition, al-Buti concludes that Muslim forces shouldn’t attack unbelievers. They should fight when attacked, or when an attack seems imminent, but that’s all. In this conclusion he notes that he is siding with three of the four major Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the Hanafi, Maliki, and Hanbali: all agree, by his account, that military jihad should only be undertaken to ward off an attack or potential attack. Of course, such restrictions can be and have been interpreted with great elasticity, but the fourth Sunni school school of jurisprudence (madhhab) goes even farther: the Shafi’is, as well as the minor Zahiri school, favor offensive jihad. The Shafi’is and Zahiris, according to al-Buti, “proclaimed that the fundamental cause of Jihad is to terminate Paganism.”
Imran Ahsan Khan Nyazee, Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Shari’ah and Law of the International Islamic University in Islamabad, in a 1994 book on Islamic law quotes the twelfth century Maliki jurist Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd. Ibn Rushd reports on a consensus (ijma) among Muslim scholars on jihad warfare – and in traditional Islamic legal terms a consensus among scholars, once reached, cannot be modified. “Why wage war?” asks Ibn Rushd, and then he answers his own question: “Muslim jurists agreed that the purpose of fighting with the People of the Book…is one of two things: it is either their conversion to Islam or the payment of jizyah.” Nyazee concludes: “This leaves no doubt that the primary goal of the Muslim community, in the eyes of its jurists, is to spread the word of Allah through jihad, and the option of poll-tax [jizya] is to be exercised only after subjugation” of non-Muslims.
But if this is so, why hasn’t the worldwide Islamic community been waging jihad on a large scale up until relatively recently? Nyazee says it is only because they have not been able to do so: “the Muslim community may be considered to be passing through a period of truce. In its present state of weakness, there is nothing much it can do about it.”
In this view, then, the jihad must continue as long as there are unbelievers, and only falls into abeyance when Muslims do not have the military strength to press forward with it. Making war on unbelievers is one of the responsibilities of the Muslim umma. That the three stages of jihad, culminating in offensive warfare to establish the hegemony of Islamic law – which stage is normative for all time -- can be found not only in the writings of contemporary Islamic jihadists, but also in ancient Muslim scholars, underscores the traditional character of contemporary Islamic jihad activity. Modern mujahedin are, in their own view, not “hijacking” Islam; they are restoring its proper interpretation – and they are successfully convincing peaceful Muslims around the world that they are correct in this.
For this to end, peaceful Muslims around the world would have to confront the fact that bin Laden and other jihad terrorists are regularly justifying their violence by reference to passages of the Qur’an and the words and deeds of Muhammad. If they don’t acknowledge this and formulate new and non-literalist ways of understanding this material, it will continue to be used to incite violence. In other words, the use that jihadists make of elements of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s teaching makes it incumbent upon peaceful Muslims to perform a searching reevaluation of how they understand those elements, so as to neutralize their capacity to set Muslims against non-Muslims.
People will do evil in all kinds of circumstances, and use all manner of justification for it; but the violent passages in the Bible are not equivalent to those in the Qur’an in content, in mainstream interpretation, or in the effect they have had on believers through the ages. The fact that in Islam violence against unbelievers has divine sanction in a way that it does not in Christianity makes religious violence more prevalent and harder to eradicate in Islam than it has ever been in Christianity. To equate it to a jumble of passages from the Bible to which no one would otherwise be paying any attention at all, at least as direct marching orders for twenty-first century warriors, is specious and dangerously misleading.
Mercy vs. judgment
In Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian, Russell takes issue with Jesus as a model of moral behavior on several grounds – notably because he preaches about hell. Russell says, “I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment” – yet it is a simple matter of observation that many people who are indeed profoundly humane, from Francis of Assisi to Mother Teresa of Calcutta, have so believed. And contrary to the claims of anti-“Christianist” writers concerned about the apocalyptic violence of the Left Behind series -- their belief doesn’t seem to have damaged their capacity for concern for others.
Russell also feels pangs of grief for the fig tree cursed by Jesus: “This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree.” Other critics of Jesus have taken issue with Jesus’ apparent rudeness to the Syrophoenician woman who asks him to heal her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28), and to his harsh words for the Pharisees, to whom he says, “You are of your father the devil” (John 8:44). In light, however, of the teachings of the Qur’an, Muhammad, and Islamic theologians on jihad warfare and Islamic supremacism, such objections seem almost quaint. For those who are neither Christians nor Muslims, of course, neither Jesus nor Muhammad are moral paradigms; however, to anyone who is aware of the Gospel texts and the traditions about Muhammad that Muslims consider reliable, there can be no question as to which one teaches peace and which one teaches war and conquest. Or can one reasonably equate Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44) with the Qur’an’s directive to the followers of Muhammad to be “ruthless to the unbelievers” (48:29)?
And not just war and conquest. The mercy which is so much a part of Christianity has virtually no home in Islam, contrary to its repeated invocations of Allah as ar-Rahim, “the merciful.” An emblematic contrast is in the treatment within each religion of the Mosaic law’s command to stone adulterers. In a celebrated incident in the Gospels, Jesus tells a group that has assembled to stone to death an adulterous woman: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, after the crowd dispersed in shame, he said to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 7:53-8:11).
On the other hand, an adulterous couple was once brought to Muhammad, who used the occasion to challenge the Jewish leaders about their fidelity to the letter of their own law. “What do you find in the Torah,” he asked them, “about the legal punishment of Ar-Rajm (stoning)?” They answered, “We announce their crime and lash them,” whereupon a former rabbi and convert to Islam, cried: “You are telling a lie. Torah contains the order of Rajm.” One of the Jews then began to read from the Torah, but he skipped the verse mandating stoning for adultery, covering it with his hand. The former rabbi commanded, “Lift your hand!” The verse duly read, Muhammad exclaimed, “Woe to you Jews! What has induced you to abandon the judgment of God which you hold in your hands?” Muhammad ordered the couple to be stoned to death; another Muslim remembered, “I saw the man leaning over the woman to shelter her from the stones.”
Of course, rabbinic Judaism ever since the destruction of the Temple had evolved non-literal ways to understand such commands, while in Islam their literal interpretation is still very much alive.
Hard to believe
Yet many people, whether they give any credence to the claims that are being made about Christian theocracy, have a hard time believing that the teachings of jihad violence and Islamic supremacism could be widely accepted among Muslims worldwide. One main reason why they have this difficulty is because the Muslims they have met personally are gentle souls who profess to abhor religious violence, and assure them that their religion is peaceful – and surely you’re not saying they’re lying, are you?
They may not be. In Islam, as in all religious traditions, there is a spectrum of belief, knowledge, and fervor. Many who call themselves Muslims know or care little about what the mainstream authorities of the religion actually teach. And because of certain elements of the nature of Islam, some who are quite devout may have only a glancing familiarity, at best, with the material outlined here about jihad warfare. One is that although many continue to use the words “Muslim” and “Arab” as if they were synonymous, most Muslims worldwide today are not Arabs, and do not speak Arabic – especially the Qur’an’s difficult, seventh-century Arabic. Yet all the sects and schools of Islam mandate that prayers must be said and the Qur’an recited in Arabic – making this for many merely an exercise in formalism, involving the repetition of syllables they do not understand.
The Islamic ideology of jihad warfare has been deemphasized in modern times for a complex of historical reasons – notably in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and West Africa. That has created a situation in which many Muslims have heard little or nothing about it, at least until jihadist recruiters began appearing with texts entitled “Jihad: the Forgotten Obligation” and the like. In his delightful memoir The Caliph’s House: A Year In Casablanca, Tahir Shah recounts the arrival of jihadist recruiters in a Casablanca slum. They parked a “well-built trailer” across the street from the mosque, and set about trying to win the local people to their virulent vision of Islam.
Jihadists today view the vast body of cultural Muslims as a huge recruiting field, and have often recruited them by calling them back to the full practice of their religion. Dinesh D’Souza illustrates the loyalty that ordinary Muslims feel to Islamic authorities in an anecdote from his boyhood in India. A Muslim family that rented property from D’Souza’s grandfather decided to renege on their pledge to leave at the end of their lease because property values had risen, and the property was covered by rent control laws. But then a local imam confronted the family: “You gave your word and you are still here? You call yourself a Muslim? You are a disgrace to Islam! I advise you to start packing.” The family obeyed.
However, if the local Muslim leader is inclined toward jihad violence, such loyalty can have chilling implications, as illustrated by an incident (recounted by David Pryce-Jones in his book The Closed Circle) from the Ottoman Empire of the late nineteenth century, as recounted by the wife of a Muslim family that had lived peacefully next to a Christian family for years:
Then one night, my husband came home and told me that the padisha had sent word that we were to kill all the Christians in our village, and that we would have to kill our neighbours. I was very angry, and told him that I did not care who gave such orders, they were wrong. These neighbours had always been kind to us, and if he dared to kill them Allah would pay us out. I tried all I could to stop him, but he killed them — killed them with his own hand.
Unfortunately, all too many in such situations do not believe that Allah will “pay them out,” but rather that he will reward them for their fidelity to the teachings of the Qur’an and Islamic tradition on jihad.
Philip Jenkins and the Boston Globe should take note.