As I have said many times, I am all for attempts at Islamic reform, but that reform can only possibly be effective if it confronts and rejects the elements of Islam that jihadists are using to justify violence. That is not precisely the same thing as pretending that these elements of Islam do not exist. Jihadists recruit among Muslims using the Qur’an and Sunnah; simply denying that the passages they use exist, or that they are using them, will not stop them from using them.
“What the Qur’an Really Says About Violence” by Hesham A. Hassaballa, at BeliefNet:
‘Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them’
It is open season on Islam these days, with conservative critics making remark after remark that attack Islam, Muslims, the Qur’an, and the Prophet Muhammad as pervasively and inherently bad. An essential argument these conservatives and others have against Islam is that the Qur’an preaches violence.
Note that already Hassaballa is blaming this idea on “conservative critics,” as if they, rather than the global jihadists, had originated it.
The most popular verse quoted is the fabled Verse of the Sword: “Fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).” (9:5) On the surface, this verse seems to confirm Islam’s perceived intolerance of non-Muslims. It may even lead one to conclude that all the talk about Islam being a religion of “peace” is a ruse, and that the real Islam is the violent, repressive faith practiced by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban.
But hold on. The truth is quite different from what these Islam’s attackers want us to believe.
I must address a few very important points here. For there to be any semblance of an intelligent and scholarly analysis of verses of the Qur’an, a full understanding of the Arabic language along with understanding of the context of the verses in question is an essential prerequisite. In fact, this must be the scholarly approach to the exegesis of any book of scripture, including the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. Volumes upon volumes have been written by numerous Islamic scholars, both classical and modern, that attempt to interpret the meaning of the over 6,000 verses of the Qur’an. Qur’anic exegesis is an academic discipline in itself, and it requires years of learning before a scholar is able to independently comment on Qur’anic scripture. Neither Islam’s conservative critics, nor the “scholars” and “experts” they read and quote from in their writings, possess such knowledge. What they do is misquote, mistranslate, or quote Qur’anic verses out of context and use those misquotations as evidence for their claims. These tactics violate every rule of Scriptural Exegesis 101.
If it were true that the Qur’an can only be properly understood in Arabic, why do Muslims translate it? Why is it recited again and again in mosques every day, within the hearing of people who have not spent years studying to understand it?
But besides that, this isn’t even true. Of course, I can ultimately speak only for myself when I say that I do not “misquote, mistranslate, or quote Qur’anic verses out of context,” but I have never seen any of the writers worth reading in this field doing so either. I myself almost always quote only the translations of Abdullah Yusuf Ali and Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall — translations made by Muslims for Muslims.
And as for the “out of context” canard, it too is false. I for one don’t interpret the Qur’an or claim to do so; I merely report on Islamic interpretations of it. In my book Onward Muslim Soldiers I discuss at length how Muslim exegetes use the context of the verses to argue that violent jihad against unbelievers is the Qur’an’s last word on jihad. I didn’t originate that exegesis. Here is an example of it: a chief justice of Saudi Arabia argues from the Qur’an that “first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory – (1) against them who start “the fighting” against you (Muslims)… (2) and against all those who worship others along with Allah… as mentioned in Surah Al-Baqara (II), Al-Imran (III) and Tauba (IX)… and other Sarah (Chapters of the Qur’an).” Crying “out of context” does nothing to refute this exegesis.
When the infamouse [sic] “Verse of the Sword” is studied in its proper context, it becomes quite clear that the claim the Qur’an is violent is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. From the very beginning of his mission, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was violently opposed by his people. At first, the Pagan Arabs simply ignored the Prophet’s call and ridiculed his message. They quickly realized, however, that this tactic did not stop the flow of converts to Islam. The Meccans then turned to torture and repression of Muhammad and his companions to try to muffle his message, which was nothing more than the abadonment of the worship of idols for the worship of the One True God. Muhammad himself survived several assassination attempts. In one of these, a Meccan tried to crush the Prophet’s head with a large boulder while he was praying at the Ka’abah, the holy shrine at Mecca. God, however, miraculously foiled the attempt and the Prophet was saved.
After 10 years of hardship, the Meccans finally expelled the Prophet to Medina, a city 200 miles to the north. Since they could not kill him, this was the only thing the Meccans could do to stop the Prophet’s message. There, the inhabitants of Medina accepted Islam, and it became the first Islamic city-state with the Prophet Muhammad as its spiritual and political leader. While in Medina, the Meccan pagans did not relent in their hostilites against the Muslims. Now, however, many surrounding tribes also became hostile to Islam and joined in the Meccans’ fight. Several battles were fought against the Muslims. These tribes also attempted to assassinate the Prophet on several occasions, as the Meccans tried a decade earlier.
It is in this violent context that verse 9:5 was revealed. The commandment to “slay the pagans wherever you find them” in verse 9:5 speaks of the hostile Arab tribes surrounding Medina. At every given chance, these tribes attacked the Muslims and killed as many of them as possible for no just cause.
All this is, of course, not quite accurate. For one thing, the greatest victory of the early Muslims, the battle of Badr, was an offensive conflict sparked by Muhammad’s orders to raid the caravans of the Quraysh.
Frequently, columnists and pundits who try to smear Islam quote verse 9:5 incompletely and out of context. The full verse reads as follows: “But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them: seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war); but if they repent, establish regular prayers, and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for God is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.”
If one reads on in the ninth chapter, the reasons for “slaying the pagans” is clearly outlined: “Will ye not fight people who violated their oaths, plotted to expel the Messenger, and took the aggressive by being the first (to assault) you? Do ye fear them? Nay, it is God Whom ye should more justly fear, if ye believe!” (9:13) When sincere scholarship and exegesis is applied, it becomes quite clear that verse 9:5, and all others similar to it, is one of self-defense and not a carte blanche to kill all non-believers, as some would want us to believe.
Straw man. The imperative is not to kill all non-believers, but to subjugate them under the rule of Sharia (cf. Qur’an 9:29, Sahih Muslim 4294, the exegesis quoted above, and much more).
In fact, the principle of fighting in Islam is self-defensive: “To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid…If God did not defend one set of people by means of another, then monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques, in which the name of God is commemorated in abundant measure, would surely have been destroyed…” (22:39-40)
Notice that the reason the Qur’an gives for waging war, as a last resort, is for the protection of churches, synagogues, and mosques–so much for Islam’s “intolerance.”
Here again, this is only part of the picture. Certainly the dhimma allows churches and synagogues to exist — but it forbids the building of new ones or the repair of old ones. The Qur’anic statement above cannot be and has not by Muslims been understood in isolation from 9:29, which commands warfare against Jews and Christians “until they pay the jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
Further, Muslims are commanded not to be aggressive: “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not transgress limits; for God loveth not transgressors” (2:190) In addition, when the enemy inclines toward peace, Muslims are commanded to cease hostilities: “But if the enemy incline towards peace, do thou (also) incline towards peace” (8:61). The guiding principle of Islam with respect to non-Muslims is one of tolerance and mutual respect, plain and simple: “God does not forbid you from dealing kindly and justly with those who do not fight you for (your) Faith nor drive you out of your homes: for God loveth those who are just.” (60:8)
I have already referred to the argument that the defensive war was only the second stage of revelation of the Qur’an’s theology of jihad. It would be refreshing to see Hassaballa confront and refute that.
Then there is the issue of how the Qur’an treats Jews and Christians. Some have claimed that the Qur’an says Jews are consigned to “humiliation and wretchedness” (2:61), try to introduce corruption (5:64), have always been disobedient (5:78), and are enemies of God (2:97-98). When addressing verses that, on the surface, seem to be derogatory toward Jews, again, it is essential that the verses be placed in context (remember Scriptural Exegesis 101).
Verse 2:61 refers to those of the Children of Israel who were disobedient to Moses after being freed from Egyptian bondage, not all Jews. The text of verses 2:97-98 refer to those who are “enemies of Archangel Gabriel,” not Jews. Verses 5:64 and 5:78 speak of the Jews who were disobedient to God and His Prophets, again not all Jews.
When sincere scholarship and exegesis is applied to the Qur’an, it becomes a clear that the claim of the Qur’an’s anti-Semitism is an absurd fallacy.
I wonder how Hassaballa would respond to this Qur’anic exegesis, or to the many modern Muslim commentators who refer to Jews as “apes and pigs” because of Qur’an 2:62-65, 5:59-60, and 7:166.
In the Qur’an, Jews and Christians are given the honorific title of “People of the Book.” The Prophet was the last in the line of Prophets and Messengers, dating back to Adam, and Islam is nothing more than the continuation and completion of their message. Thus, the Qur’an acknowledges and respects the prior messages of Moses and Jesus.
And says that Jews and Christians are under “Allah’s curse” (9:30).
The Torah is described as “a guide to mankind” (3:3) and the Gospel of Jesus as having “guidance and light” (5:46). While the Qur’an rejects the notion of the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus, the Jewish Prophets that are named in the Qur’an are highly honored: “And we gave him [Abraham] Isaac and Jacob, each did We guide, and Noah We did guide before; and of his descendants David, Solomon, Job, Joseph, and Aaron; and thus do We reward those who do good. And Zechariah, John (the Baptist), Jesus, and Elias; every one was of the righteous. And Ishmael, Elisha, Jonah, and Lot; each one we favored above all others” (6:84-86).
Now think about that for a moment. The Torah and Gospel contain guidance, but Jews and Christians are under a curse, and the Qur’an, as Hassaballa acknowledges, denies the divinity and crucifixion of Christ. How can all this make sense? Traditional Islamic theology holds that what are known today as Jews and Christians are renegades who have twisted the real teachings of Moses and Jesus. And those teachings were identical to the Qur’an. Thus when the Qur’an lists the prophets, it is not being ecumenical; it is appropriating them as Islamic and delegimitizing actual Jews and Christians.
All that makes clear the sense of the verse Hassaballa quotes next:
Further belying the accusation of the Qur’an’s anti-Judeo-Christian stance is this passage: “Those who believe and those who are Jews, Christians, and Sabeans; any who believe in God and the Last Day and work righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord and on them shall be no fear and they will not grieve” (2:62).
In his explanation of this verse, the great Qur’anic commentator Ibn Kathir, whose commentary is studied and revered by Muslims the world over today, quotes Qur’an 3:85 (“Whoever seeks religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the hereafter he will be one of the losers”) and explains that 2:62 refers to the time before Muhammad when it speaks of Jews and Christians being saved: “Allah does not accept any deed or work from anyone, unless it conforms to the Law of Muhammad.” Only before Muhammad was any other path acceptable.
Hassaballa then descends into tu-quoque arguments about the Bible, ignoring the fact that it contains no verse like Qur’an 9:5 or 9:29, and that Judaism and Christianity do not have doctrines of warfare against and subjugation of unbelievers, as Islam does.
In addition to quoting Qur’anic verses out of context, Islam’s attackers project the opinions of a small handful of Islamic scholars upon all of Islam, as if Islam is a monolithic blob that can be packaged and labeled as this or that. Such insincere and disingenuous scholarship is wrong and fans the flames of hatred. It is this fueling of hatred and intolerance against American Muslims that threatens to destroy the fabric of our nation’s unity.
It must be stopped before it is too late.
Anyway, I have never said Islam is a monolith. I have pointed out that all the various madhahib, or schools of Islamic jurisprudence, teach violent jihad. I’d be happy to discuss this with Hassaballa. I can be reached at email@example.com.