Kermit Zarley is a Biblical scholar who recently attended a presentation by the International Qur’anic Studies Association on the question, “The Qur’an as a Violent Text?” at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and American Academy of Religion (AAR). Five Muslim scholars and one non-Muslim scholar spoke on the question; below are Zarley’s notes on what they said. While some excellent scholars are involved in the International Qur’anic Studies Association, if Zarley’s notes are accurate, this presentation appears to have been almost entirely apologetic.
The salient points, with my responses:
Violence in the Qur’an should not be surprising since violence is a characteristic of human nature and even creation.
Yes, but this is a patent dodge. Violence may be an unavoidable fact of life but the question at hand is whether or not the Qur’an approves of it and even commands it.
Readers of the Qur’an should not focus on certain texts that may have violence but should focus on the the entire Qur’an, most of which is not about violence.
Another dodge. Unless the Qur’an’s peaceful passages actually cancel out the violent ones, the presence of material that is not violent is simply irrelevant.
Texts about violence are descriptive, not prescriptive.
That is flatly false. The Qur’an does contain descriptions of violent acts, but it also contains passages that directly exhort believers to commit acts of violence. A sampling:
2:191-193: “And kill them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution is more grievous than killing. But do not fight them by the Holy Mosque until they should fight you there; then, if they fight you, kill them — such is the recompense of unbelievers, but if they give over, surely Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate. Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is Allah’s; then if they give over, there shall be no enmity save for evildoers.”
4:34: “Men are the managers of the affairs of women for that Allah has made the one superior over the other, and for that they have expended of their property. Righteous women are therefore obedient, guarding the secret for Allah’s guarding. And those you fear may be rebellious admonish; banish them to their couches, and beat them. If they then obey you, look not for any way against them; Allah is All-high, All-great.”
4:89: “They wish that you should disbelieve as they disbelieve, and then you would be equal; therefore take not to yourselves friends of them, until they emigrate in the way of Allah; then, if they turn their backs, take them, and kill them wherever you find them; do not take to yourselves any one of them as friend or helper.”
5:33: “This is the recompense of those who fight against Allah and His Messenger, and hasten about the earth, to do corruption there: they shall be slaughtered, or crucified, or their hands and feet shall alternately be struck off; or they shall be banished from the land. That is a degradation for them in this world; and in the world to come awaits them a mighty chastisement.”
5:38: “And the thief, male and female: cut off the hands of both, as a recompense for what they have earned, and a punishment exemplary from Allah; Allah is All-mighty, All-wise.”
8:12: “When thy Lord was revealing to the angels, “’I am with you; so confirm the believers. I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them!'”
8:39: “Fight them, till there is no persecution and the religion is Allah’s entirely; then if they give over, surely Allah sees the things they do.”
8:60: “Make ready for them whatever force and strings of horses you can, to strike terror in the enemy of Allah and your enemy, and others besides them that you know not; Allah knows them. And whatsoever you expend in the way of Allah shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged.”
9:5: “Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, kill the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them, and confine them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayer, and pay the alms, then let them go their way; Allah is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.”
9:29: “Fight those who believe not in Allah and the Last Day and do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden — such men as practise not the religion of truth, even if they are of the People of the Book — until they pay the jizya with willing submission and feel themselves subdued.”
9:111: “Allah has bought from the believers their selves and their possessions against the gift of Paradise; they fight in the way of Allah; they kill, and are killed; that is a promise binding upon Allah in the Torah, and the Gospel, and the Koran; and who fulfils his covenant truer than Allah? So rejoice in the bargain you have made with Him; that is the mighty triumph.”
9:123: “O believers, fight the unbelievers who are near to you; and let them find in you a harshness; and know that Allah is with the godfearing.”
47:4: “When you meet the unbelievers, smite their necks, then, when you have made wide slaughter among them, tie fast the bonds; then set them free, either by grace or ransom, till the war lays down its loads. So it shall be; and if Allah had willed, He would have avenged Himself upon them; but that He may try some of you by means of others. And those who are slain in the way of Allah, He will not send their works astray.”
Readers should look for various levels of meaning in violent texts.
Hard to imagine what “levels of meaning” could be found that would mitigate the literal sense of “kill them wherever you find them.” In any case, anyone who consults the standard and mainstream Qur’anic commentaries on the passages above — Ibn Kathir, the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, al-Qurtubi, etc. — will see that these passages are generally interpreted by mainstream Islamic scholars in a fairly straightforward manner.
Readers should avoid interpreting violent texts literally.
Maybe they should, but what if the violent texts are meant literally? Literalism is the dominant mainstream in understanding the Qur’an among Muslims. All the traditional schools of Islamic jurisprudence teach that Muslims have a responsibility to wage war against and subjugate unbelievers. Where does any non-literal understanding of these passages predominate among Muslims? Even the Sufis, who have mystical interpretations of many things in the Qur’an, don’t reject violent jihad.
Some Qur’anic texts cancel others, so some violent texts are thereby canceled.
This is just the opposite of reality. The Islamic doctrine of abrogation actually tends toward the view that the violent texts supersede peaceful ones. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, an eighth-century Muslim named Ibn Ishaq, explains the progression of Qur’anic revelation about warfare. First, he explains, Allah allowed Muslims to wage defensive warfare. But that was not Allah’s last word on the circumstances in which Muslims should fight. Ibn Ishaq explains offensive jihad by invoking a Qur’anic verse: “Then God sent down to him: ‘Fight them so that there be no more seduction,’ i.e. until no believer is seduced from his religion. ‘And the religion is God’s’, i.e. Until God alone is worshipped.” (2:193)
The great medieval scholar Ibn Qayyim (1292-1350) also outlines the stages of the Muhammad’s prophetic career? Ibn Qayyim says: “For thirteen years after the beginning of his Messengership, he called people to God through preaching, without fighting or Jizyah, and was commanded to restrain himself and to practice patience and forbearance. Then he was commanded to migrate, and later permission was given to fight. Then he was commanded to fight those who fought him, and to restrain himself from those who did not make war with him. Later he was commanded to fight the polytheists until God’s religion was fully established.”
According to a 20th century Chief Justice of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh ‘Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Humaid, “at first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory.” He also distinguishes two groups Muslims must fight: “(1) against them who start ‘the fighting’ against you (Muslims) . . . (2) and against all those who worship others along with Allah . . . as mentioned in Surat Al-Baqarah (II), Al-Imran (III) and At-Taubah (IX) . . . and other Surahs (Chapters of the Qur’an).” (The Roman numerals after the names of the chapters of the Qur’an are the numbers of the suras: Sheikh ‘Abdullah is referring to Qur’anic verses such as 2:216, 3:157-158, 9:5, and 9:29.)
The Qur’an must be understood contextually, that is, according to the activities Muhammed (founder of Islam) when he wrote or uttered them. Thus, certain violent texts were written when Muhammed had just conducted some battle, so that readers should not necessarily apply such texts to their own situation. For example, Sura 8 is “a salvation warfare sura,” with its context being a certain battle. For example, Sura 8.12 says, “God revealed his will to the angels, saying, ‘I shall be with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers.’”
The problem with this claim is that the Qur’an says of Muhammad: “There has certainly been for you in the Messenger of Allah an excellent pattern for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah often.” (33:21) Muhammad is the supreme example of conduct for Muslims; if he did something, it is right to do, and Muslims should imitate him doing it.
The verse, “slay them wherever you find them,” refers only to pagans, Hindus, and Buddhists during the time in which it was written.
That would be bad enough. In any case, it is true that Qur’an 9:5 refers to people who are not People of the Book, but these scholars cannot point to any ruling from any recognized Islamic body anywhere that says that this verse has no present or future applicability.
Kermit Zarley is a perceptive man: he wasn’t fooled.
“Does the Qur’an Promote Violence?,” by Kermit Zarley, Patheos, December 2, 2016
…But the session I was looking forward to the most was conducted by the International Qur’anic Studies Association on the question, “The Qur’an as a Violent Text?” I have posted about this issue multiple times. (Click here on the following: “Are We Doing Enough About Islamic Suicide Bombers?,” “Are Muslims Being Radicalized with the Qur’an?,” “Did El-Sisi Say Revise the Qur’an?,” “El-Sisi Is Not the Only Muslim Questioning the Qur’an, “Radical Islamists: ‘Discredit Their Ideology.’”)
There were six speakers. All were Muslims except one, who was an authority on the history of Islam. Although it was never discussed, underlying this session was the reality of widespread Islamic terrorism presently in the world. Here are some points these speakers made about this subject (“sura” in the Qur’an is similar to “chapter):
- Violence in the Qur’an should not be surprising since violence is a characteristic of human nature and even creation.
- Readers of the Qur’an should not focus on certain texts that may have violence but should focus on the the entire Qur’an, most of which is not about violence.
- Texts about violence are descriptive, not prescriptive.
- Readers should look for various levels of meaning in violent texts.
- Readers should avoid interpreting violent texts literally.
- Some Qur’anic texts cancel others, so some violent texts are thereby canceled.
- The Qur’an must be understood contextually, that is, according to the activities Muhammed (founder of Islam) when he wrote or uttered them. Thus, certain violent texts were written when Muhammed had just conducted some battle, so that readers should not necessarily apply such texts to their own situation. For example, Sura 8 is “a salvation warfare sura,” with its context being a certain battle. For example, Sura 8.12 says, “God revealed his will to the angels, saying, ‘I shall be with you. Give courage to the believers. I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers.’”
- Sura 4.34 was discussed. It says, “Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient…. [the disobedient] beat them.
- The verse, “slay them wherever you find them,” refers only to pagans, Hindus, and Buddhists during the time in which it was written.
- Not discussed specifically were the many Qur’anic verses that command, “Fight for the cause of God.” Also, “they will slay and be slain.”
- Sura 5.52 [more commonly 5:51] was mentioned but not discussed, “Believers, take neither the Jews nor the Christians for your friends.”
- Sura 5.39 [more commonly 5:38] was mentioned, “As for a man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands to punish them for their crimes.” But there is ambiguity with the addition, “But whoever repents after committing evil, and mends his ways, shall be pardoned by God.”
Overall, I was not satisfied with these explanations about violence in the Qur’an. Of course, whenever a Jew or Christian talks about violent texts in the Qur’an, listeners often claim the same occurs in the Bible. I think there is a significant difference. The Old Testament merely records much history that includes violence, whereas the Qur’an, as I read it, does much commanding of violence.