The reinventing of Islam Submitted by Daniel Kayes Thomson

Among the I inquiries I receive fairly frequently are requests to comment on lists of Qur’an verses which articulate a strident and violent antagonism to Christians and Jews. These same verses are also quoted often enough by the extremists themselves, those who perpetrate acts of terror and murder against non-Muslims and for that matter against secular Muslims or Muslims who espouse a different approach to Islam than their own–and especially by those who plan, encourage, and fund such acts. Moreover, they are cited by those who maintain they are not extremists, but whose selection of verses nevertheless does not moderate such motifs in the Islamic world. You can easily find most of these Qur’anic texts. I recommend readers check them out, especially if you can compare multiple translations (available in many websites), and Qur’an commentaries. It is also important to read a few verses on either side to get the context.  

The business of quoting verses from the Qur’an to prove a point already believed to be true is easy in this case: there are many verses which support views we would characterize as extremist, and promising the sword and a violent end to unbelievers, including Christians and Jews. And, it is correct that Islamic legal authoroities generally consider the “Sword Verse” (9:5) to abrograte all other verses to the extent that they contradict it.  

But of course it is not clear how useful the simplistic citation of verses is. Perhaps it is ironic that the extremists who cite them approvingly, and the anti-Islamic activists who cite them as proving the essense of Islam, come to share the same interpretation of the Qur’an. But whereas for religious persons, God is capable of acting or may be indeed the only true Actor, nevertheless Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and by extension, Bible, New Testament and Qur’an are not agents: only God (for those who are religious) and Man are actors in history. We may say that God commands or speaks in these texts, but in all cases, the Divine Word is interpreted and put into effect by human beings, who participate to a greater or lesser extent within various traditions of how these verses are to be understood. And those traditions are malleable—our history of interpretation and choices made by interpreters and teachers shape the way the verses are understood. To put this as simply as possible: “Islam teaches” is not completely accurate; indeed, it is “shorthand” for a process in which the verses and teachings are always selected, understood and interpreted by humans.

To illustrate, consider that Christians generally believe that the Son of God is the Prince of Peace and quote verses to show the peaceful nature of Christianity. But most Christians also consider what they see as “the moral law of the Old Testament” to be part of the canon, as is a “Sword Verse” in the New Testament, and the book of Revelations—not exactly peaceful materials.

And modern Jewish extremists – fewer in raw numbers and in percentages than the Muslim extremists to be sure – sometimes rule that Arabs are Amalek or Palestinian Arabs, and for that matter any non-Jews in the State of Israel are like the Seven Nations—and thus must be utterly destroyed. If they do not do so, according to some Jews, it is merely such principles as recognition of the flawed international power scene that prevents treating them the way that halacha requires.

The reasons that most Jews and most Christians do not think this way and that too many Muslims do—even if a small but significant percentage–-has to do with such things as choices made regarding pilosophy, enlightenment, the universalist tendencies in Jewish and Christian traditions by those who shaped religious opinion such as Maimonides, Aquinas, Jacob Emden, the Maskilim, Rabbi Kook and John Paul II; and on the Islamic side, by the processes which have brought ideas promoted by the Wahhabis, the Muslim Brotherhood, Sayyid Qutb, and the Islamic Revolution more currency among Islamic activists than the more liberal and universalists interpretations that are actually favored by a majority of Muslims.

We ignore the extremist views in the Qur’an at our peril of course: these have been and continue to be powerful texts that shape Islamic thought. But we do ourselves no favor to simply adopt a one-sided assessment of the essential nature of a religious tradition rather than understanding it in context. This thinking is too close to that of the Islamic extremists themselves, and ignores the role of modern developments in shaping a complex set of responses to modernity by Muslims.

Seth Ward

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