UPDATE: I’ve been informed that Murray Watson has left the priesthood. (Thanks to Richard)
It’s Salon, and so of course it’s saying that the Qur’an is not the problem. Whenever there is a story in the mainstream media about the Qur’an or Islam, you can be sure that it will be assuring us that they have nothing to do with the violence committed in their name and in accord with their teachings. And if you’re a non-Muslim who reflects and furthers these views, such as Fr. Murray Watson, a Roman Catholic priest and professor of Biblical studies and “interfaith dialogue” in London, Ontario, you’re in line with the views of the Pope, the governments of the West, and the mainstream media — you’ve got it made. Whether or not what you’re saying is true, however, is another matter. Comments interspersed below.
“The Quran isn’t the problem: Violent extremism is about more than just sacred texts,” by Murray Watson, Salon, February 23, 2015:
In a column for Salon earlier this month, “Faith-fueled forces of hatred: Obama’s religion speech was troubling — but not for the reasons the right alleges,” Jeffrey Tayler suggested that the real problem with the religious extremism which increasingly confronts us lies deeper than merely the heinous actions we have witnessed. Rather, Tayler argues, it is inscribed in the very sacred texts of the world’s largest religious traditions. “We should not ascribe vile behavior to misreadings of the canon,” the argument goes, because that sense of hatred and violence is actually at the heart of religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam — whose scriptures include some admittedly stomach-turning passages.
As a Biblical scholar, however, I beg to disagree with this analysis, which seems like an oversimplification of the situation, and a forced dichotomy where other options exist.
There is no denying that Judaism, Christianity and Islam contain in their sacred books verses and chapters that are distasteful, awkward, unpleasant, and (especially from our modern point-of-view) morally dubious. Not only scholars of religion, but all those who attempt to take those scriptures seriously, are forced to grapple with those issues.
While the heightened attention to the destructive potential of these texts is perhaps new, discomfort with many of these passages is not, and each of these faiths has significant interpretive traditions which face these difficulties head-on, in many cases managing to neutralize or tame them, so to speak, through symbolism, allegory, contextualization or similar approaches. With the exception of the most die-hard fundamentalist readers (who insist on a strictly literal reading, with no room for interpreters to “remediate” such difficulties), each of the three monotheisms offers credible and creative ways to address these texts thoughtfully, respectfully and effectively.
“While the heightened attention to the destructive potential of these texts is perhaps new, discomfort with many of these passages is not, and each of these faiths has significant interpretive traditions which face these difficulties head-on, in many cases managing to neutralize or tame them, so to speak, through symbolism, allegory, contextualization or similar approaches.” Actually that is just what we do not see, and what is so urgently needed, in mainstream Islamic exegesis of the Qur’an. Instead, in Islam literalism is mainstream.
They do this because, at least in their classic forms, none of those three traditions consider themselves empowered to radically edit their canonical literature. Being unable to jettison words that previous generations judged to be inspired, the next best option is finding appropriate ways to de-fang these “texts of terror,” as scholar Phyllis Trible has aptly called them.
Inasmuch as I suspect every major religion tradition has texts such as these, which are hard to reconcile with modern moral standards, I think that blaming the texts themselves is somewhat misleading—especially since the vast majority of these religions’ adherents show no inclination to act out the troubling content of their own faiths’ sacred texts.
Textual violence does not necessarily get translated into physical violence; in fact, very seldom is that the case overall, I would argue. It would be very hard to find a Jew who advocated the kind of genocide that some passages of the Hebrew Scriptures could be read as endorsing.
Watson ought to apprise his Salon readers that one key reason for this is because nowhere do the Hebrew Scriptures exhort believers to imitate the behavior depicted in those passages. Nowhere do Jewish or Christian exegetes teach that those passages are marching orders for contemporary believers, or believers for all time. But this is exactly what all too many imams teach Muslims about the violent passages in the Qur’an.
There are very few contemporary Christians who view the bloody language of the Book of Revelation as license for wholesale slaughter of the wicked in Christ’s name.
Very few? How about none at all? Where are the Christians who are committing violence and then justifying it by citing Revelation?
And it is only a very small fraction of self-described Muslims who focus on verses in the Qur’an that (at least on the surface) appear anti-Jewish or anti-Christian. In each case, no one denies the existence of those passages. They are there, and educated Jews, Christians and Muslims have long been aware of them.
A very small fraction — say, one percent? In other words, over ten million people? In any case, here again, what is sorely lacking and much needed is a Muslim exegesis of the Qur’an that rejects literalism in relation to the violent passages. I have been calling for this for years. Instead, we get constant obfuscation, such as Tahir ul-Qadri’s vaunted 300-page fatwa against terrorism, which doesn’t even mention the passages of the Qur’an that exhort believers to violence against unbelievers; and the recent “Letter to Baghdadi” from Muslim scholars to the self-styled caliph of the Islamic State, which endorsed central concepts of jihad doctrine that Western analysts usually think are limited only to “extremists.”
The rest of the Salon piece explains how Jews and Christians allegorize and spiritualize uncomfortable passages. Fr. Murray Watson assumes that Muslims do this with the Qur’an also. He doesn’t offer any examples. I’d love to see one from a mainstream exegete — an interpretation that Muslims demonstrably accept in large numbers. Right now that is still the 800-pound gorilla who is not in the room.