Violence and Context in Islamic Texts
Recently, the journalist Paul Sheehan, reflecting on the Woolwich beheading of Drummer Lee Rigby, invited consideration of the view of Muslim violence in authoritative Islamic texts. In the Sydney Morning Herald of May 27, 2013, Sheehan observed that the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad seem to be a factor behind Muslim violence, and offered these critical observations:
A rejoinder was published the next day by Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla, founding director of the Islamic Research Unit at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Abdalla rejected the proposition that Islam supports killing innocent people: "A contextual reading of the Koran or Hadith leads to one conclusion only: there is no justification for killing of innocent people…"
Sheehan, while affirming that "Most Muslims are peaceful," did not say that Islam is the only factor behind Muslim violence, and he did not claim that the killers' interpretations of religious texts were the only valid interpretation. He also nowhere used the label "innocent" to characterize victims of Muslim violence; and he did not claim that Islam supports killing "innocent" people. His point was simply that, according to some Muslims, violent verses in the Koran contribute to Muslims behaving violently.
Why did Abdalla introduce the word "innocent," and do his arguments have credibility?
Abdalla's key point is that seemingly violent texts from Islam's canon have to be read "in context." He explains that to put the Koran "in context," one must at least consider the following five factors:
Abdalla claims that Sheehan is not competent to pass judgement on the Koran because he lacks such knowledge. He also states, but offers no evidence to support the allegation, that taking "context" into account will result in a more moderate interpretation of these sacred scriptures.
Taking context into account, however, can actually make a "peaceful" verse quite nasty, and a violent verse even worse. There is nothing about "context" that makes it a magic wand to render peaceful and harmless every text over which it is waved. Context is neither a silver bullet against violent texts, nor is it a disinfectant for theological unpleasantness.
It also needs to be understood that radical jihadis themselves use a contextual model to interpret the Koran: they do not simply rely on context-free interpretations or on proof-texts -- quotes taken out of context to support an argument. The Bin Ladins of the world -- and theologians such as Sayyid Qutb who paved the way for them -- have been more than familiar with interpretive tools such as the "context" of revelation, "abrogation," or the life of Muhammad. Such subjects are on the curriculum in the jihad factories.
What is disappointing about Abdalla's article is that the very texts he refers to only get worse when their context is taken into account. For example, he criticizes Sheehan for citing a passage from the second chapter of the Koran: "And slay them wherever ye find them …" Abdalla writes:
Take, for example, this partial quote he cited, "And slay them wherever ye find them … " Sheehan fails to state that this is part of five-long verses (2:190-195), which must be read together. When read in context the legal implication derived stipulates that fighting is permitted only under certain strict circumstances. Additionally, the same verses prohibit transgression of limits, and it (sic) does not promote killing of innocent people but allows self-defence. It further goes on to state "if they cease, let there be no hostility except to those who practise oppression." Clearly, when the whole context is examined the verses do not promote killing of innocent people.
Let us take a closer look at these six verses, with the help of a great Muslim scholar, Ibn Kathir, whose commentary on the Koran has been translated into English, and is widely respected and read today by Muslims around the world. (The reader can examine the relevant part of the commentary here.)
First, here are the verses from the second chapter of the Koran:
What is the context of this passage? It dates from the early Medinan period, when Allah had given permission to Muslims to fight against those who fought them: "fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but transgress not the limits." (2:190) Abdalla is correct when he says that the phrase "slay them wherever you find them" (2:191) refers to fighting against those who fight Muslims: it is not a universal command to kill noncombatants or innocent people. Yet there is more to be said.
Ironically, verse 190 was one of the passages invoked by Michael Adebolajo, the killer of Drummer Lee Rigby, when he said: "we are forced by the Quran ... through many, many ayah [verses] throughout the Koran that we must fight them as they fight us." [Emphasis added.]
Adebolajo's testimony was that he killed a British soldier because British soldiers have been fighting Muslims. He would most likely agree wholeheartedly with Abdalla's interpretation of this passage, and assert with him that Islam prohibits killing "innocent people." To Adbolajo, however, Rigby was not "innocent."
The key question, then, is what constitutes "innocence" in Islam? As it happens, the expression "fitnah is worse than killing" in verse 191 provides the key to finding an answer. Ibn Kathir has this to say:
Since Jihad involves killing and shedding the blood of men, Allah indicated that these men are committing disbelief in Allah, associating with Him (in the worship) and hindering from His path, and this is a much greater evil and more disastrous than killing. Abu Malik commented about what Allah said: "And Al-Fitnah is worse than killing." Meaning what you (disbelievers) are committing is much worse than killing. Abu Al-Aliyah, Mujahid, Said bin Jubayr, Ikrimah, Al-Hasan, Qatadah, Ad-Dahhak and Ar-Rabi bin Anas [Muslim authorities] said that what Allah said: "And Al-Fitnah is worse than killing." [means] "Shirk (polytheism) is worse than killing." [Emphasis added. Parentheses in text. Bracketed parts, the author's.]
First let us pin down some key terms. The Arabic word fitnah originally meant a "persecution" or "trial" that undermines or shakes Muslims from their faith. This concept was widened over time to include just about anything that opposes Islam or "hinders" Muslims from following the Islamic path.
Shirk, often also translated as "idolatry" or "polytheism" literally means "association, "partnering" or "sharing." Shirk is described in the Koran as the one unforgivable sin (4:48). It is a religious term used to characterize all forms of non-Muslim belief. Non-Muslims are considered to be "associaters" who "attribute partners" to Allah. As such, because they worship others as well as Allah, they are considered to be in violation of true monotheism. Christians, for example, worship Jesus as the "son of God," and Hindus, pagans and others worship various idols. Chapter 9 verse 30 of the Koran even accuses Jews of "association":
"And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah [Jesus] is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fights against them. How perverse are they!"
What then does it mean when the Koran says that "fitnah is worse than killing"? According to Ibn Kathir, to disbelieve in Allah is to be guilty of the crime of shirk or, as he puts it, "committing disbelief." Shirk, he says, is fitnah, the crime worse than killing. Just being a non-Muslim -- a Christian, a Jew or a pagan -- is worse than murder.
This is not a peaceful verse. It has been cited, for example, by leading Muslim legal authorities such as the Grand Mufti of Jordan, His Excellency Shaykh Said Hijjawi, in order to justify killing "apostates," people who choose to convert out of Islam. Such a decision threatens Muslims' faith, and must, according to the Grand Mufti, be met with the death penalty, because the shirk, or disbelief, of apostasy is worse than killing.
It gets worse. The next half of verse 193 – "fight them until .… the religion is for Allah" is interpreted by Ibn Kathir as a command to fight (and kill) people until they convert to Islam. To support this, he cites a tradition of Muhammad, who said:
[Muhammad said:] "I have been ordered (by Allah) to fight the people until they proclaim, 'None has the right to be worshipped but Allah.' Whoever said it, then he will save his life and property from me …"
Here Muhammad is claiming that Allah has commanded him to fight others until they confess Islam. If they do not, Muhammad asserts that he has the right to kill them and take their property. If they convert to Islam, they will be safe. (It is useful to bear in might that the Arabic word for "fight" actually means "fight to kill." It is derived from a root which means 'kill': the connection is instantly apparent to Arabic readers, but lost in English translation.)
Concerning the rest of verse 193 -- the part about "and if they cease," which Abdalla specifically refers to -- Ibn Kathir goes on to explain:
Abdalla is quite correct when he says that Islam forbids killing "innocent" people. But then the question is: Who, according to Islamic scholars, is "innocent"? Ibn Kathir, a highly respected commentator in the orthodox mainstream of Muslim scholarship, teaches that non-Muslims are guilty by virtue of their disbelief in Islam, and that this disbelief is an "injustice," a crime worse than murder. To Ibn Kathir, a disbeliever is guilty by definition. If someone refuses to convert, and continues to commit shirk, he is not "innocent" and may be fought and killed. But as soon as the enemy converts to Islam, he is no longer "unjust" or guilty of disbelief, but "innocent," and must not be harmed.
When we follow Abdalla's formula for putting the Koran in context, the words of 2:190-95 do not take on a rosier hue: quite the opposite. What we find instead is that in this view, someone inside Islam is "innocent," and someone outside Islam is "guilty" and deserving of death.
We have not even begun to consider the impact of one of the other principles mentioned by Abdalla: abrogation. This is an interpretive principle which holds that verses in the Koran from later periods in Muhammad's life supersede or "abrogate" conflicting verses from earlier periods. As it happens, later in Muhammad's life the verses of the Koran became more warlike, and Muhammad's acts became more violent. So in several key instances, the more warlike verses abrogate the more peaceful verses.
Consider for example the limitation of verse 190, that Muslims should only fight those who fight against them: "And fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Truly, Allah likes not the transgressors." [Emphasis added.] This limitation applied in the early Medinan period of Muhammad's prophetic career, but later it was cancelled by the "verse of the sword":
"Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush." (9:5)
Concerning this verse, Ibn Kathir has this to say:
This honorable Ayah (9:5) was called the Ayah [verse] of the Sword, about which Ad-Dahhak bin Muzahim said, "It abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolator, every treaty, and every term." Al-Awfi said that Ibn Abbas commented: "No idolator had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara'ah was revealed."
According to Ibn Kathir, therefore, all peace agreements between Muslims and non-Muslims (referred to in earlier passages of the Koran) were abrogated after verse 9:5 was revealed. After 9:5, earlier "limits" on fighting non-believers no longer applied. By the "verse of the sword" the earlier doctrine of defensive jihad was set aside and replaced with a policy of aggression against non-believers.
Abdalla also rebukes Sheehan for not mentioning three passages. These are:
A careful consideration of the context of each verse, however, undermines Abdalla's claims that these passages are peaceful.
The first passage, chapter 6:151 of the Koran, is in fact a citation from the Torah. However, even if we read this as a command to Muslims, the phrase "except by way of justice and law" is a significant exception to the prohibition against killing. To unpack this exception, Ibn Kathir cites a tradition of Muhammad:
[Muhammad said:] "The blood of a Muslim person who testifies that there is no deity worthy of worship except Allah and that I am the Messenger of Allah is prohibited [i.e. Muslims should not be killed], except for three offenses: a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse, life for life, and whoever reverts from the religion and abandons the Jama'ah (the community of faithful believers)."
There is a prohibition, a warning and a threat against killing the Mu'ahid [non-Muslims who have a treaty of protection with Muslims]. Al-Bukhari recorded that Abdullah bin Amr said that the Prophet said, "Whoever killed a person having a treaty of protection with Muslims, shall not smell the scent of Paradise, though its scent is perceived from a distance of forty years." Abu Hurayrah narrated that the Prophet said, "Whoever killed a person having a treaty of protection with the Muslims, and who enjoys the guarantee of Allah and His Messenger, he will have spoiled the guarantee of Allah [for him]. He shall not smell the scent of Paradise though its smell is perceived from a distance of seventy years."
Ibn Kathir is saying that although in general a Muslim person should not be killed, there are three exceptions allowed by the phrase "except by way of justice and law," (6:151). These are: if he has committed adultery, killed another, or left Islam. This verse, cited by Associate Professor Abdalla as evidence that Islam is peaceful, can, through its exceptions, be used to justify killing people who leave Islam.
Ibn Kathir then observes that the blood of a non-Muslim should not be shed if he is under a treaty of protection granted by Muslims. The underlying supposition is that if a non-Muslim is not protected by a treaty, he can be killed. His blood is not protected, but halal [permitted]: free to be shed by Muslims. The general rule is that Muslim life is sacrosanct, but the life of the non-Muslim can be taken.
Abdalla's second passage, Koran 5:32, quotes another Jewish text, this time the Talmud. But consider the context: the rest of the verse is a rebuke of the Jews -- "Most of them are still transgressing" -- and the very next verse (5:33) calls for people who fight against Muhammad to be crucified, have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, be banished, or be humiliated in this life, after which they will suffer worse in the hereafter. Again, this is not exactly peaceful.
Abdalla's third passage is a hadith [reports on the life and sayings of Mohammed], which states that if a Muslim kills a mu'ahid they will not smell the scent of paradise (that is, they will go to hell).
As it happens this is the very same hadith which Ibn Kathir quotes to explain Koran 6:151, when he defines when a non-Muslim's life should not to be taken.
Contrary to Abdalla's claim, the Arabic word mu'ahid does not mean a "non-combatant" or an "innocent non-Muslim." Taken literally, it refers to someone who has entered into a covenant, but here it refers to a dhimmi: a tolerated non-Muslim who has surrendered to Muslim armies and is permitted to live as a second-class citizen under the paid "protection" of Muslims. In Islam it is forbidden to kill dhimmis without just cause. However non-Muslims who refuse to surrender or convert to Islam enjoy no such protection.
To translate mu'ahid as "innocent non-Muslim" could, in fact, be considered offensive. The opposite of a mu'ahid is someone who refuses be a dhimmi: non-Muslims who refuse to surrender to Islam. The implication is therefore that non-Muslims who reject dhimmi status are guilty, and their lives are not protected in Islam. Thus Abdalla's very words, employed in an attempt to demonstrate the peaceful character of Islam, in fact reflect an underlying world view in which non-Muslims are "guilty" of the capital offense of "committing disbelief" in Islam, and only safe -- not "innocent" but merely "tolerated" -- if they adopt dhimmi status and give in to Islamic dominance.
In hermeneutics -- the understanding and interpretation of texts, especially religious ones -- context is everything. But context itself is blind to morality, and is not inherently a force for good. Unfortunately, for each and every verse Abdalla cites, a reasoned contextual interpretation makes the meaning not better but worse.
Abdalla would appear to be guilty of the very thing he accused Paul Sheehan of: "When these texts are not read in their proper textual and historical contexts they are manipulated and distorted -- by Muslims and non-Muslims alike." To cite such verses as evidence of the peaceful character of Islam is to manipulate and distort their meaning.
Abdalla might have been more careful in his exegesis and acknowledged the tradition of interpretation. He might have proposed some new, liberating perspective on these texts, and offered arguments to support his views. He might even have exposed and challenged the theological worldview of jihad and dhimmitude which has influenced commentary on these texts for more than a thousand years. But instead he just splashes whitewash over everything.
In these troubled times, when there are thousands of radicalized Muslims who show scant respect for non-Muslim life and are proud to quote the Koran to justify their violent deeds, a genuinely transparent, re-interpreted Islam might be found liberating by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Such an approach, however, must at the very least honestly acknowledge Islam's traditions of commentary on the Koran, and explain how a large number of violent texts might be viewed in a more liberating light.
Associate Professor Abdalla should know better. Although he might hope otherwise, dodgy hermeneutics contribute nothing to the Western public's understanding of Islam. Knee-jerk proof-texting of the "Islam is peace" claim will help no one; it is urgent that we engage with the pressing questions of Islam's place in the world today.
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