Thursday, USA Today reported another attack likely by Islamic militant group Boko Haram. Bombings killing at least 32 on Tuesday followed a string of recent suicide attacks in northeastern Nigeria that killed 42 people on Oct. 23.
After the recent shootings in France, University of North Texas student government president Adam Alattry lamented, “growing up in a Muslim household in the United States, the only Islam I knew was one who preached love, compassion, charity, acceptance and empathy. After Sept. 11, 2001, perceptions of me and my religion were forever changed.”
Democrats including President Obama have been reluctant to use the term “Islam” even with qualifiers such as “radical.” Religions have a history of doctrine and followers barbaric by today’s standards. Beyond perverting faith, how much of Islam can easily be construed as potentially hostile?
Reza Aslan, popularized by confronting CNN anchors for “facile” arguments about Islam, states the obvious: “if you’re a violent person, your Islam — your Judaism —your Christianity — your Hinduism — your Buddhism is going to be violent.” However, many of his explanations regarding Muslims have been debunked. While ultimately we judge people by how they behave, the conversation should include what theological basis may be found in holy texts.
The Torah endorses draconian punishments by modern standards, yet no Jew employs them. Christians were heavily involved in slavery and institutional discrimination through the 20th century but there is nothing in the New Testament advocating it. Where Aslan believes actions are the responsibility of individuals rather than doctrine, Irshad Manji’s The Trouble with Islam challenges the idea that there is a single pure Islam that properly followed by everyone would only yield good and never evil.
As to what the Qur’an and Hadith actually say and what precedents the prophet Muhammad set, there is disagreement, starting with whether earlier or more recent verses are to be followed when there seems to be a contradiction. The BBC points out in regard to war:
“More radical Muslim thinkers…say that…the so-called ‘sword verses’, have “abrogated” (revoked or annulled) the verses that permit warfare only in defence. They used these. . . to justify war against unbelievers as a tool of spreading Islam. Others. . .regard non-Muslims, and Muslims who don’t conform rigorously. . .as non-believers and thus as “enemies of God” against whom it is legitimate to use violence.”
Patheos notes clarity is especially challenging in Islam. As Muslims believe the precepts of the Qur’an to be situational, there are inconsistencies and “amateur interpretation by a non-Muslims reading English has no relevance to what Muslims actually believe.” Verses in the Qur’an require context, so the only legitimate spokespersons for their religion are contemporary Muslims themselves.
As another example, Quran 5:32 is often quoted: “if anyone kills a person it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind.”
The complete verse states:
“…whoever kills a person-unless it is for murder or corruption on earth-it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.”
Followed by 5:33:
“The punishment for those who fight Allah and His Messenger, and strive to spread corruption on earth, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. That is to disgrace them in this life; and in the Hereafter they will have a terrible punishment.”
William Montgomery Watt, of the University of Edinburgh, explained in the Cambridge History of Islam that for Muhammad, religion was “the total response of his personality to the total situation in which he found himself. He was responding [not only]… to the religious and intellectual aspects of the situation but also to the economic, social, and political pressures to which contemporary Mecca was subject.”
However, Khaleel Mohammed, Professor of Religion at SDSU told atombash.com that while the Torah and the Qur’an grant permission for war only after there is no other way out, and once full war is declared, demand appropriate protocol, “after the death of Muhammad, many Muslim leaders deliberately skewed interpretations of the Qur’an to foment war…and at the zenith of military power, they chose to decontextualize verses and to conquer lands.”
Georgetown’s Haroon Ullah points out, it is not poverty and ignorance that spearheads religious extremism but rather, educated instigators with geopolitical savvy. Manji concurs: “What’s our excuse for reading the Koran literally when it’s so contradictory and ambiguous,” and notes an “Arab monopoly” on Islam that leads to number of cultural issues such as only allowing the Qur’an to be read in Arabic, meaning a select few maintain a stranglehold on Qur’anic interpretation (think: Galileo).
Speaking with Aslan and neuroscientist Sam Harris, Jonathan Kirsch noted the historical precedent of to encouraging and exalting tenets we find uplifting and righteous while putting aside others seen as archaic or dangerous—common practice to all but the radical fringe. Harris views the Torah as uniquely severe as “it is spelled out, ad nauseum, when you should kill people for theological reasons,” but he and Kirsch believe Judaism and Christianity have already undergone a reformation whereas rejection of fundamentalism lags in the Muslim world. Indeed, violent orthodoxies such as Wahhabism and Salafi jihadism are recent developments.
Muhammed Sayed and Sarah Haider, co-founders of Ex-Muslims of North America, point out:
“One can criticize the Islamic ideology without treating Muslims as themselves problematic or incapable of reform. There are true Muslim reformists who are willing to call a spade a spade while working for the true betterment of their peoples.”
Patheos also notes “modern Muslims do not agree on whether Islam should be considered an ideology…what constitutes an Islamic government or even whether there should be Islamic governments,” and some now see that Western governments are not Christian theocracies.
In her bestseller, Heretic, Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues, “Islam is not a religion of peace,” and some key teachings of Islam are incompatible with a free society. She believes, however, that a reformation aimed at reconciling with modernity has begun and calls upon the West to drop the bogus argument that those who criticize the doctrine are Islamophobes, because Muslim reformers need our backing.
Harris correctly argues we must guard against “belief that…is immune to criticism…and only in religion do we have a veneer of sanctity.” We provide the moral guarantor of faith by having a human conversation that encompasses religious texts and provides important historical perspective of moral behavior. That is the scrutiny that all religions should bear as we struggle to find a balancing act between more contemporary understanding and those things many believe to be eternal truths.