Talking about Violence and the Quran

Here we are, a third of the way through the Quran’s body of text, and the presence of polemic and violent attentions against the enemies of Muhammad has been near-constant. This dismays me, I must admit. In approaching the Quran I had hoped to find more contemplative or instructive materials for its believers. A believer can still pull instruction and contemplative material for themselves through the judging of others, but that is a problematic lens to look through. It attaches cynical assumptions about unbelievers into the moral derived. With all these passages, it can be tempting for us who are outsiders to denounce that Islam is a hostile and violent religion, but I want to argue that we should not do that, for various reasons…

Broader Context

One thing to remember is that Islam doesn’t really rely on just the Quran alone, despite the rhetoric insisting such. Muhammad is a key ingredient in Islam. I had tried to articulate this in my post Muhammad-Shaped Hole, but perhaps I got too caught up in the history to make this point clear. One cannot have a theocracy without a telephone to God. Though the Quran claims to fill that need, it’s a one-way conversation that doesn’t cover everything. We have seen in its own passages a reliance on Muhammad to administer, clarify, and deal with judicial matters not covered in its text. This first third of the Quran has not yielded much administrative law or ritual practice. The theocracy has not been given any structure or process besides the absolute authority of Muhammad. Once Muhammad died, many of the passages of the Quran lost their literal interpretation. Surah at-Tawba specifically reprimanded people for not riding out with the Prophet to war, but now there was no prophet to ride out with. From that point on, men have had to arbitrate what “going out with the Prophet” means, and the Quran ceased to speak so plainly on such matters.

With such being the case, my blog is not going to be successful at summing up the beliefs and practices of Islam. Many of Islam’s beliefs and practices (even the specific five prayers of the day) are dictated by materials like the Sunnah and Hadith. Those materials are also not complete laws and guidance, therefore even more beliefs and practices are extrapolated from those materials by scholars. Since I make an effort to avoid those sources except for occasional consultation, my blog is not going to include the vast majority of theological, practical, and traditional information that makes up Islam. The plainest reading of the Quran is probably not the fairest reading because, without Muhammad in the flesh, the plainest reading does not seem possible.

This need for scholarly interpretation grows constantly as the factors of human society change. For example, how does one fast in Iceland for all of daylight when Ramadan occurs during the summer (1,2,3)? How will space travel affect ritual practices (1,2,3)? What commandments are relevant to topics such as birth control (1,2)? The Quran calls believers to immigrate to Muslim communities, but what about now when jobs, safety, and education require Muslims to emigrate away (1,2,3)? Muhammad was the paragon autocrat, but how does one react to the flawed authority of lesser men (1,2,3)? Is democracy a modern innovation to be shunned or an Ishmaelite contribution to the world (1,2,3)? On these things, the Quran has no plain answers because they were not issues at the time of its revelation, and so scholars must interpret the answers from indirect concepts, not always arriving at the same conclusions. This includes interpreting how a modern believer is supposed to respond to passages calling the to wage war alongside a prophet who is now dead.

Guard Our Assumptions

I worry that saying “the Quran/Islam is violent” betrays our own failure to understand Muslims. To understand religion in general, really. I sense there’s a broad assumption that one chooses a religion according to its central values, because one believes it’s useful for helping you feel good. Perhaps you were raised in it, and so your sense of self-worth and feeling good are too entrenched in your religion to be easily removed. While there is sometimes truth in this, it leads to a terrible assumption that if we can simply show someone how bad their religion should make them feel, then that person would leave it. The basic assumption is that people pick religions by their values, rather than what that religion promotes as truth.

This assumption completely misses the many other aspects and reasons for religious belief. People tend to choose or remain in a religion because they find something true in it. While a person might find truth in the moral values a religion promotes, there are many other starting points. A religion could have very compelling descriptions of God, societal order, or individual identity and purpose. Oftentimes, choosing a religion is simply a matter of finding something that rings true with your knowledge or experience, and then following through the implications of that truth. Those implications include reshaping your values to align with the truths you’ve accepted. A lot of religions involve considerable practices of self-denial, which is not intrinsically pleasant or rewarding for many people. People don’t accept Christianity because they want to not have sex before marriage. People don’t accept Judaism because they want to have to reject most forms of food. People don’t accept Hinduism because they want to spend a lot of money offering ritual sacrifices. Rather, they accept those values and practices in consequence of what they find true in their religion.

So imagine someone who is Muslim because they find the simple monotheism and vision of social justice in the Quran compelling. They put a lot of weight on the Quran since it provided them with the things they found true, but they are also informed by the many scholarly extrapolations and interpretive readings in order to apply Islam to their modern life. As such, they don’t believe they are called to acts of violence, and that the literal war of Muhammad’s time is now a spiritual one. Under the assumption that people choose a religion based on their already formed values, we approach such a Muslim and say, “Hey, your religion requires you to be violent. See, look at here-and-there, that proves it. You don’t like those things, so that means you don’t really believe in your religion.” Moreover, when they dismiss our evidence, we try even harder and more aggressively to build our case and trap them in it. The stupidity of this is that rather than challenging the things they find true, we are challenging their interpretations of what that truth is calling them to do. The inevitable alternative to dissuading their belief is that we persuade them they aren’t being true to their beliefs unless they are violent. Or at the least that we are the evil ones for demanding violence from them, and this only affirms passages in the Quran that we are out to corrupt them.

Guard Our Arrogance

There are many great debate topics with which to question Islam: predestination and justice, the character of God, the nature and use of holy texts. These are more often the things that lead a person to accept their religion as true, not necessarily because they make the person feel good. In those topics can be found fruitful grounds for challenging Muslim beliefs–and our own. Perhaps another reason we insist on the violence topic is because we don’t feel as challenged to re-evaluate our own beliefs in consequence (though we should, given our flawed uses of “just war”). It gives us a seemingly secure place to attack from, but that’s a place of arrogance. If there’s one thing you do not want to bring before Muslim evaluation, it’s arrogance. That only confirms the Quran’s expectations of us.

It is also a folly to think that we can pull out a few texts and summarize the religion. When I approached this study, I had an idea that if I read the whole Quran I’d have enough context and material to understand Islam, and I steered clear of the traditional sources in order to have a purer view of its teachings. Very protestant of me. At this point I see that such is not the case. Islam is determined by much more than the Quran, and it is arrogant to say, “I know what you believe. I’ve read your holy book. Done.”

And Also

My Muslim friends greet me with as-salaamu ‘alaykum, “The Peace upon you.”

I can’t stand thinking of what kind of person I’d be if I answered with, “you really ought to be killing me right now.”

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