Whenever an Infidel quotes the Qur’an, Muslim apologists say he is quoting it “out of context.” This “context” business was early identified by Ibn Warraq as one of the rhetorical smokescreens put up by those Muslim apologists. Indeed, it is almost as much a favorite as that “if you don’t know Arabic, you can’t comment on the Qur’an” argument, which would read out of Islamic orthodoxy, on the grounds that they can’t possibly understand the texts, the 80% of the world’s Muslims who are not Arabs and do not know Arabic. Of course, that doesn’t keep them, in the madrasas, from being forced to memorize entire chunks of the Qur’an in a language they do not understand.
There are two kinds of context. One is the actual text itself: that is, when a movie reviewer writes that the movie in question is “quite possibly the best example of movie-making out of Hollywood at its most characteristically idiotic” then becomes, in the subsequent ads, a blurb that reads “quite possibly the best example of movie-making out of Hollywood…”
And that is exactly what Muslims do, and people like Bush, when they quote Qur’an 5.32 but never quote it in the obvious and necessary and indispensable context of 5.33.
Another kind of context is the historical one. That is, is what is in Qur’an and Hadith to be taken and applied to this age? Or is it to be understood by Muslims as needing to be re-interpreted, just the way American constitutional jurisprudence is all about intelligently interpreting the original Constitutional text, as well as phrases in the Amendments? (What is “due process of law” in the Fourteenth Amendment? What might be included in that phrase? And how, in what way, would such rights as are found to be included in that phrase apply as against the Federal government — hint: see the Fifth Amendment, and go from there.)
But the Constitution, blissfully, is a document created in time, by humans — though possibly the most wonderful and intelligent set of statesmen ever to gather in one place. And therefore we are willing to add amendments from time to time. Therefore we are willing, from time to time, to subject things to new interpretations, or to relate them to what we may see as the intent, or what we think or argue would be the intent today, of the Framers.
Not so with the Qur’an. It is deemed by Believers the literal and uncreated Word of God. It is good for all time. True, in the first few centuries of Islam there was a certain leeway, when texts were still being established, and jurisconsults were deciding what the Qur’an must mean and how to reconcile its obvious internal contradictions. The interpretive doctrine of “naskh” or abrogation then became fixed, and the Qur’an became even more harsh for Infidels as a result. Then, too, the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of so-called Hadith had to be collected, studied, winnowed, and ranked through analysis of the isnad-chain, according to what the most authoritative and learned muhaddithin deemed to be their authenticity. Finally, since the first biographer of Muhammad, Ibn Ishaq, was only known through the work of others, and himself wrote 150 years after the death of Muhammad, it was in those first centuries that the official biography was established.
And all this happened. And then the gates of ijtihad swung shut with a thud.
But here’s the point: the Qur’an is uncreated and immutable and not-to-be-tampered with. The Hadith, as ranked by Bukhari and Muslim, are not to be changed in their rankings. The details of the life of Muhammad — the killing of the Banu Qurayza prisoners, the assassinations of Abu Afak and Asma bint Marwan, the attack on the inoffensive farmers of the Khaybar Oasis, the justification of killing all those who did not submit to Islam and seizing their property and their women, and even setting out rules for the proper distribution of the loot — all that is set down, all that cannot be changed, and all that, as with everything else to do with Muhammad, is taught to Muslims as something admirable, and not to be deplored. For everything the Perfect Man, Muhammad, did, is to be emulated.
And so when the subject of little Aisha comes up, it may be that your Muslim interlocutor, who up to that point had managed to pretend to be a Western man, more or less, capable of sweet reason and mastering his passions, will suddenly go into a rage. He may first try to deny that Aisha was six when betrothed to Muhammad and nine when that marriage was consummated (what a demure word, how it puts us in mind of having tiny cress and cucumber sandwiches at, say, high tea at The Dorchester or Claridge’s, and since it is midwinter, asking for a little dish of consomme as well), and then when you cite chapter and verse will retreat into the argument of Context, because back in the Seventh Century everyone married young, Everyone Was Doing It.
And at that point you can partly concede that yes, twelve-year-olds were betrothed to one another in some places, and royal alliances were thus fashioned. But in this case it was a nine-year-old girl and a man in his fifties. And furthermore, if it was merely a matter of “context,” then why is it that almost the first act of the Ayatollah Khomeini was to lower the marriageable age of girls in Iran to nine? We know why. If it was good enough for Muhammad, it is good enough for everyone, for all time.
And that is the problem. It is regarding the Qur’an as outside of time, instead of as a product of humans, produced in time and space and seen in its historical context. That is why the work of scholars of early Islam, if heeded, can do much to help the genuine “moderate” Muslims — those who comprehend the nightmare, and who out of fear or filial piety cannot declare themselves to be apostates, but continue bravely to tell themselves that something can be done: perhaps we can eliminate the Hadith, perhaps somehow we can claim that the biography of Muhammad was tampered with or begin to diminish his role, perhaps perhaps perhaps.
But Ahmed Bedier is not one of those who finds anything worrisome about Islam. He is out to defend every last bit of it, to protect it from critical scrutiny. Only the most treacly of treatments, the kind of thing we now expect and indeed would be amazed not to find from the likes of Esposito and Armstrong, will satisfy most Muslims.
But it will no longer satisfy us. There has been, even in the regular — that is, even in the uncomprehending — popular press, too much of what we may call Jihad News. And the pressure of that news, which is added to day after day all around the world, is building up so that even the most willfully religion-of-peace Infidel is having trouble ignoring the evidence. Those Infidels will soon begin to find the “context” argument, and all the other rhetorical tricks employed by Bedier and others, not merely unsatisfactory, but positively alarming.
“War is deception,” said Muhammad. Once that is understood, and once one has been deceived, and has come to realize the depth and breadth of that deception, one will not easily go back to the mixture as before.