In NRO Mustafa Akyol has replied to Andrew McCarthy‘s criticism of his initial piece claiming that radical Muslims were violating tenets of Islam by beheading hostages. My own initial reply to Akyol is here.
Looks like it’s time for another long post. My apologies.
I have been criticized by people I respect recently for making trouble for moderate Muslims. Leave them alone, they say. They’re doing important work, refuting the radicals. Well, sure — if they are indeed refuting the radicals. But my problem with these articles by Mustafa Akyol and similar ones by others is that they don’t refute the radicals: if a radical Muslim read them, he would be able to invoke multiple verses of the Qur’an and Sunnah to refute them. So I wonder again: what is the real intended purpose of articles like Akyol’s? Is it to convert radical Muslims to moderation, or just to reassure jittery Westerners that Islam isn’t as threatening as it may seem? And if it’s the latter, and it’s done on false or shaky pretenses, what kind of reassurance is that?
This time Akyol starts with a common canard:
McCarthy begins by defining jihad as “violent holy war.” Yet the term “jihad” does not necessarily refer to armed conflict. It simply means “effort” and it can include nonviolent struggles, such as an intellectual endeavor against atheism. Of course, there is also military jihad in the Koran and in the Islamic tradition; that is the point we have to discuss and, perhaps, redefine.
Redefine? Interesting. So is Akyol rejecting traditional understandings? If so, I’m all for it, but what kind of a following does he have? But anyway, yes: no one who has studied these matters at all doesn’t know that jihad doesn’t always mean armed conflict. But so what? The Shafi’i legal manual (the Shafi’is are a school of Islamic jurisprudence) ‘Umdat al-Salik devotes one paragraph to jihad as spiritual struggle and seven pages to jihad as warfare. Blandly asserting that jihad is also a spiritual struggle doesn’t move one inch to stop the groups that are right now waging armed jihad all over the globe.
Akyol then argues that Qur’an 8:67 and 47:4, which enjoin killing unbelievers,
were revealed in seventh-century Arabia, where battles were fought by swords and spears. Winning a battle meant killing a great number of your enemies. Any reluctance during the battle to attack and kill the enemy could bring defeat, and, in Muslims’ case, annihilation of the whole umma, or community of believers.
It’s interesting that the rhetoric of radical Muslims often parallels this: just the other day I posted a piece from the New York-based Salafi Society of North America. It says:
Don’t the Muslims know that our struggle against the Jews is a struggle of Creed and a struggle of Religious livelihood? Don’t they realize that it is a struggle of culture, a struggle to remain in existence, a struggle of identification?
It would follow, then, that the Salafis of North America, reading Akyol’s piece, would say that that is true: the context of verses 8:67 (“It is not for any prophet to have captives until he hath made slaughter in the land”) and 47:4 (“Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers in fight, smite at their necks”) refers to times when the very existence of the Islamic community is threatened. And that time is now.
Then Akyol criticizes McCarthy’s reasoning:
McCarthy finds in this a justification for the beheadings in Iraq. His reasoning goes like this: (a) When jihad is ongoing, the taking of prisoners is frowned on, and (b) jihad should be ongoing until the enemy is subdued.
Here is a crucial flaw in McCarthy’s argument; a failure to distinguish between a military jihad (a war) and a battle. Early Muslims of Medina were at war with the pagans of Mecca for many years, but they took prisoners of war after the battles they won. If they thought along the lines McCarthy suggests, they should never have taken any prisoners of war, which was obviously not the case.
This argument is rendered irrelevant by the fact that Islam allows for the killing of prisoners of war, as I outlined in my previous response. Quoting again from ‘Umdat al-Salik, which is endorsed by Al-Azhar University, the supreme institution of Sunni Islam:
When an adult male is taken captive, the caliph considers the interests … (of Islam and the Muslims) and decides between the prisoner’s death, slavery, release without paying anything, or ransoming himself in exchange for money or for a Muslim captive held by the enemy. [o9.14]
Then Akyol assails McCarthy for invoking the account of the Bani Qurayza massacre, which I also discussed in my reply:
McCarthy criticized me at this point for leaving out the account of Bani Qurayza, the Jewish tribe whose men were reportedly beheaded by order of the Prophet because they had secretly collaborated with the pagan army attacking Medina. I had a reason for leaving this out: I strongly doubt its historical accuracy. There is no reference to such a dramatic event in the Koran and it only appears in the biography of the Prophet written by Ibn Ishaq, a man who died 145 years after the event. In a detailed article that questions the accuracy of this story, scholar W. N. Arafat explains why it was probably a “later invention.” Ibn Hajar, an Islamic authority, denounced it and other related stories as “odd tales.” A contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, Malik the jurist, denounced Ibn Ishaq outright as “a liar” and “an impostor” just for telling such fables. Moreover, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership says, the “massacre… hardly shows up in Jewish literature.”
This all seems impressive, but it falls apart on closer examination:
1. “There is no reference to such a dramatic event in the Koran…”
True — sort of. Even the scholar Akyol cites, W. N. Arafat, along with many others, acknowledges that Sura 33:26 refers to the massacre:
And those of the People of the Book who aided them – Allah did take them down from their strongholds and cast terror into their hearts. (So that) some ye slew, and some ye made prisoners.
Hardly a clear reference, I know. But anyone who thinks that the Qur’an relates stories of the early Muslims in a clear and straightforward manner has not read the book. The Qur’an is largely a dialogue between Allah and Muhammad. In it, they often refer to events and people that they know, but that we don’t — unless we have recourse to ahadith and other extra-quranic texts in order to elucidate what the Qur’an is saying. Take, for example, Sura 9:81:
Those who were left behind rejoiced in their inaction behind the back of the Messenger of Allah: they hated to strive and fight, with their goods and their persons, in the cause of Allah: they said, “Go not forth in the heat.” Say, “The fire of Hell is fiercer in heat.” If only they could understand!
The translator Abdullah Yusuf Ali, along with many other Muslim authorities, is certain that this verse refers to Muhammad’s last military adventure, his trip to Tabuk to take on the Byzantines. He even inserts a parenthesis after “left behind”: “(in the Tabuk expedition.)” But “Tabuk” does not appear here, or anywhere, in the actual text of the Qur’an.
2. “…and it only appears in the biography of the Prophet written by Ibn Ishaq, a man who died 145 years after the event.”
Akyol doesn’t tell you that, removed from the events as he was, Ibn Ishaq is Muhammad’s FIRST biographer. There is no earlier source outside the Qur’an for details of the Muslim Prophet’s life.
3. “In a detailed article that questions the accuracy of this story, scholar W. N. Arafat explains why it was probably a ‘later invention.'”
And on what grounds does Arafat do this? He says, among other things, that “to kill such a large number is diametrically opposed to the Islamic sense of justice and to the basic principles laid down in the Qur’an.” Therefore it didn’t happen? Come on. Even if this were true, which is not at all clear in light of verses like 9:5 (“slay the unbelievers wherever you find them”) as well as the legal injunctions I have already quoted, there is no reason why we must assume that the Muslims at this time and place acted scrupulously according to the injunctions of the law.
Arafat also says that “it it also against the Qur’anic rule regarding prisoners of war, which is: either they are to be granted their freedom or else they are to be allowed to be ransomed.” I have already quoted authorities saying that killing prisoners is an option also. Here’s another: According to the renowned jurist of the Hanafi school, Ya’qub Abu Yusuf (731-798), “There is no objection to the use of any kind of arms against the polytheists . . . one can even pursue those that run away, finish off the wounded, kill prisoners who might prove dangerous to the Muslims.”
Then Akyol attacks Ibn Ishaq’s reliability:
Ibn Hajar, an Islamic authority, denounced it and other related stories as “odd tales.” A contemporary of Ibn Ishaq, Malik the jurist, denounced Ibn Ishaq outright as “a liar” and “an impostor” just for telling such fables.
Akyol doesn’t say why they considered him unreliable. It wasn’t because of his historical accounts: it was because of his legal judgments. He was suspected of quoting legal traditions with incomplete or inadequate chains of transmitters establishing their authority (although he scrupulously includes such chains for most of his historical accounts). He was further accused of Shi’ite tendencies and other deviations from orthodoxy. But the great Islamic jurist Ahmed ibn Hanbal (780-855) summed up the prevailing view: “in maghazi [Muhammad’s military campaigns] and such matters what Ibn Ishaq said could be written down; but in legal matters further confirmation was necessary.”
Then Akyol invokes the Jews:
Moreover, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership says, the “massacre… hardly shows up in Jewish literature.”
I am no authority on Jewish literature, but I know an argument from silence when I see one.
As for the Bani Qurayza massacre istelf, it is amply attested in various ahadith. One summarizes Muhammad’s dealings with several groups of Arabian Jews:
Bani An-Nadir and Bani Quraiza fought (against the Prophet violating their peace treaty), so the Prophet exiled Bani An-Nadir and allowed Bani Quraiza to remain at their places (in Medina) taking nothing from them till they fought against the Prophet again. He then killed their men and distributed their women, children and property among the Muslims, but some of them came to the Prophet and he granted them safety, and they embraced Islam. He exiled all the Jews from Medina. They were the Jews of Bani Qainuqa’, the tribe of ‘Abdullah bin Salam and the Jews of Bani Haritha and all the other Jews of Medina.
That’s from the hadith collection considered most reliable by Muslims: Sahih Bukhari, vol. 5, book 64, no. 4028. (That’s the book numbering, not the online one. I don’t have time to check for the online numbering right now.)
Akyol’s final point is that the “‘enemy’ refers only to combatants.” Unfortunately, however, again Islamic law is against him. It prohibits the killing of women and children “unless they are fighting against the Muslims” (‘Umdat al-Salik o9.10, cf. al-Mawardi, al-Akham as-Sultaniyyah, 4.2). This has been interpreted as allowing civilians to be killed if they are somehow aiding the war effort — hence the common assertion that “there are no civilians in Israel.”
There is more: Akyol asserts that “in the Koran Jews and Christians are called ‘The People of the Book,’ and salvation is promised to them if they worship God sincerely (2:62). True, but the Qur’an also says of both Jews and Christians: “Allah’s curse be on them: how they are deluded away from the Truth!” (9:30).
So in sum, Akyol’s second piece is yet another example of the shallow and incomplete presentations from self-proclaimed moderate Muslims, which, for all their power to reassure Westerners, do nothing to take the wind out of radical sails.
Akyol is right when he says: “The Koran was revealed in the seventh century and some verses refer to events that do not or could not take place today. This means there are some parts of the Koran that we can’t — and aren’t supposed to — implement literally now.”
I couldn’t agree more. Now, Mr. Akyol: please construct an argument that takes all the data into account, so that it will be more likely to convince your coreligionists to lay down their arms and take a place in civilized society.