On Wednesday I wrote a response to a piece in Aleteia, “Does the Quran Command Beheading?,” by Fr Dwight Longenecker. Now Fr. Longenecker has doubled down: “Does the Quran Justify Beheadings?,” by Fr Dwight Longenecker, Aleteia, September 5, 2014. My comments are interspersed below.
The famed expert in Islam, Robert Spencer, has taken me and Aleteia to task in this column asking for an apology for an “extraordinarily misleading article.” I’m afraid I cannot offer Mr. Spencer an apology, but I can offer an apologia: that is a defense and an explanation.
I didn’t say he owed me an apology. I said: “For this extraordinarily misleading peace, Fr. Dwight Longenecker and Aleteia owe their readers a retraction and apology.” I said that because his piece contained basic inaccuracies liable to mislead people into complacency. I stand by that assessment.
I suspect he and many readers believe me to be too soft on Islam. They only need to connect to my blog here and read my recent posts on ISIS and the Islamic sex abuse scandals in Britain to see that I am not soft on the horrors of Islamic violence. Those who have a taste for denunciations and imprecations against Islam will be satisfied if they read those posts.
This is a condescending and inaccurate characterization. The point is not to hurl “denunciations and imprecations against Islam,” but to identify the source of the threat properly, so that we can take effective steps against it. If jihadis have a convincing case when they invoke the Qur’an and Sunnah to justify beheadings and other violence against unbelievers, non-Muslims need to know that, as it can help provide a sense of what might expected from Muslim groups in the West in fighting against this — which is exactly what Fr. Longenecker calls for. If the Islamic State has a case that is Qur’anically justifiable, we might not see many Muslims in the West join in the fight against it, despite their pro-forma condemnations — as in this piece, where Hamas-linked CAIR’s Nihad Awad denounces the Islamic State while calling not for the West to fight against it, but to join the jihad against Assad that the Islamic State is waging.
And that’s just one reason why it matters whether or not the Islamic State’s violence can be justified from the Qur’an. Another reason involves the stance that Western authorities should take regarding Muslim organizations in their countries. Should they call on them to take aggressive action and teach against the understanding of Islam that the Islamic State represents, or is that not necessary, because Muslims in the West already largely know that the Islamic State is wrong on Islamic grounds?
There are other reasons why this matters as well. But Fr. Longenecker reduces all this to having a “taste for denunciations and imprecations against Islam” — a peculiar and unfortunate echo of the Leftist/Islamic supremacist smear that opposition to Islamic jihad violence and supremacism is just “hatred” and “bigotry.” Unfortunately, this idea is all too current in today’s Roman Catholic Church (and the Catholic Church in general) — that it is wrong and uncharitable to call attention to jihad terror and Islamic supremacism. As even as violent jihadist persecution of Christians escalates worldwide, the enforced silence on this is the real lack of charity.
The question remains, however, whether the Quran commands beheadings. There is no question that Saudi Arabia uses beheading as a means of capital punishment. Neither can it be denied, as Mr. Spencer and others have pointed out, that the prophet Muhammad himself beheaded hundreds. I acknowledged this fact in a recent blog post. Mr. Spencer points out, “There are just two problems with this: the Quran and Islamic law. Fr. Longenecker does not mention, and probably doesn’t know, what is actually the primary Quran verse that Islamic jihadists and supremacists use to justify beheading: “When you meet the unbelievers, strike the necks…” — Quran 47:4.
However, this is precisely what I did acknowledge, that the Islamic jihadists use the Quran to justify their barbarism. So my article states, “The prophet in Quran 8:12 did mean for his soldiers to use the sword literally and without mercy, and the Islamic warriors of ISIS behead those they consider infidels out of direct obedience to Quran 8:12…obedience to the Quran is the reason given by the terrorists, and the terror instilled in others by beheading.”
Fr. Longenecker here misses my point. His earlier piece was entitled, “Does the Quran Command Beheading?.” In it, he examined Qur’an 8:12, determined (correctly) that it doesn’t command beheading, and thus concludes that the Qur’an doesn’t command beheading. But in that piece, he doesn’t even mention 47:4, which does command beheading, not according to me, but to classic and mainstream Qur’anic commentators, two of whom I quoted in my earlier piece. That was why I said his piece was extraordinarily misleading: it claimed that the Qur’an didn’t command beheading while not even mentioning the verse that jihadists actually use to justify beheading. That’s misleading.
I therefore agree with Mr. Spencer that both the Quran and Islamic law commend beheading. I also agree that those who favor beheading use their sacred texts to justify their cruel and barbaric acts. The minor difference between us (indeed it is the difference of only one letter) is that while I think the Quran commends beheading I do not think it commands beheading— and “commands,” after all, was the word used in my title.
I am not sure this is a distinction with a difference, but since it was reached without consideration of the Qur’an verse that says, “When you meet the unbelievers, strike the necks…” (47:4), it is dubious anyway.
Does the Quran, the biography of Mohammed and Sharia law condone beheading? Does it justify this abominably cruel practice? I fear so, and I think this is why the jihadists and other Islamic extremists behead people. This article explains my views on this matter further. Do I think the Quran commands people to behead infidels, however? Is it a watertight divine command that all Muslims must cut off a head if they are to be good Muslims?
That’s not necessarily what it means to “command beheading.” If the Qur’an commands Muslims to strike the necks of the unbelievers when they meet them in battle, which is the import of 47:4 according to the vast majority of Qur’anic commentators, what of the Muslims who never meet unbelievers in battle? Neither I nor anyone else has ever said that every last Muslim has a divine command to go find some non-Muslim to behead. That would be absurd. The command to behead is in the context of hot warfare against unbelievers, in which innumerable Muslims will never be engaged. The Qur’an does say, “Those who believe, and have left their homes and striven with their wealth and their lives in Allah’s way are of much greater worth in Allah’s sight” (9:20). The word here rendered as “striven” is jahadu (جَاهَدُواْ), a verbal form of “jihad,” struggle or strive. Thus it is saying that those who fight are better than those who don’t. But never in the Qur’an or anywhere else in Islamic theology or law is there a command that one must behead someone as some sort of lifetime requirement, like the pilgrimage to Mecca. In introducing and discussing this, Fr. Longenecker is bringing in a straw man.
I will go back to my original argument. I Samuel 15:3 could be interpreted by a Christian madman as a divine mandate for genocide. Likewise Psalm 137:9, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks,” might be interpreted by a crazed Christian to justify wanton infanticide. Indeed, wild fanatics might even carry out genocide and infanticide using those verses. They would be wrong. Very wrong, and the majority of Christians of all traditions would protest their actions.
Indeed. But there are no such people, not least because all the sects and traditions of Christianity teach against such interpretations. Is Fr. Longenecker suggesting that the Qur’an’s command to behead unbelievers is just a madman’s misinterpretation? Then why are there so many beheadings, and why have there always been beheadings, since the advent of Islam? Why are these passages from I Samuel and the Psalms never misinterpreted in the way Fr. Longenecker suggests, and yet Qur’an 47:4 is so frequently — in this view — misinterpreted? That is the question Fr. Longenecker should ponder, and answer. I hope he does.
While we can admit that extremist jihadis use verses from the Quran to justify their insane barbarism, we should also listen to the majority of moderate Muslims who abhor such violence in the name of their religion just as we would support the majority of sane Christians who would repudiate any notion that a few verses in the Old Testament justify genocide and infanticide.
Again, this analogy is simply absurd. There have been over 20,000 jihad terror attacks justified by Islamic texts and teachings since 9/11. 23,770, to be exact, as of today. How many Christians have committed genocide and infanticide since 9/11, and justified their actions by invoking I Samuel 15:3 and Psalm 137:9? None. Zero. The score is 23,770 to 0. So Fr. Longenecker is asking us to listen to the sane moderate Muslims who abhor those 23,770 jihad terror attacks, just as we would listen to the sane moderate Christians who would reject Psalm-based infanticide. But there is no problem of Christians committing Psalm-justified infanticide. There is a global problem of Muslims committing Qur’an-based acts of violence and terror. What are Fr. Longenecker’s moderate Muslims doing about that problem? Where is the global movement of Muslims teaching against this understanding of Islam and fighting to curb the influence of the “extremist jihadis”? Why is there no such movement? Why did Muslims worldwide demonstrate against cartoons of Muhammad, but never anywhere against the “hijacking” of their religion allegedly perpetrated by Osama bin Laden et al?
We have to be able to ask these questions and ponder the implications of the answers. Otherwise we may end up being responsible for the demise of a civilization that we could have saved had we not been waiting for those moderate Muslim reinforcements to come charging over the next hill…and waiting…and waiting…and waiting…
If I am correct that the majority of Muslims abhor such actions, then they must be the ones who join in an alliance with all people of good sense, sane religion and humane values, to hunt down and destroy the wolves of ISIS.
Yes, they must. People have been saying that since 9/11 and before that. Yet they have not done so. Why not?
However, if I am wrong, and each of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are at this moment eyeing our necks and sharpening their knives, then I will be the first to offer not only an apologia but an apology.
Another straw man. As a Catholic cleric, Fr. Longenecker should know from long experience that the teachings of a religion are one thing, and how much any given believer adheres to them and implements them is quite another. If the Qur’an does command beheading, as I explained above, that doesn’t mean that every Muslim must behead. And even if the Qur’an commanded every Muslim to behead, which it doesn’t, that doesn’t mean that every Muslim is going to behead.
It is consistently astonishing to me how clouded with red herrings, detours, deceptions, and straw men this issue is, when actually it is rather simple. That is, of course, largely due to the large-scale Islamic supremacist campaign of deception in the West. And of course, good men like Fr. Longenecker want to believe the best of people and see the good in things — as he said in his first piece, that he wanted to give Muslims the benefit of the doubt. I think that’s fine. Let’s also respect them enough to assess Qur’anic teaching (and the mainstream Muslim understandings of Qur’anic teaching) accurately, avoiding shoddy moral equivalence and condescending “they must not really mean that” dismissals. The world is in crisis, and that crisis is going to get worse. To be realistic, open-eyed and truthful is not to be uncharitable. And to be any less today is to be suicidal.