The world witnessed a flood of reaction to Benedict XVI’s Regensburg lecture, a reaction that has gone well beyond words, with attacks on churches in Gaza, the West Bank and Basra. Some even called for the Pope to be executed.
Australia’s Cardinal George Pell weighed into the debate, suggesting that violent responses to the Pope’s September 12 lecture demonstrate the link “for the Islamists” between religion and violence.
On the other hand, no less a figure than the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdel Aziz al-Sheikh, issued a statement on the official Saudi news service, defending Muslims’ divine right to resort to violence: “The spread of Islam has gone through several phases, secret and then public, in Mecca and Medina. God then authorised the faithful to defend themselves and to fight against those fighting them, which amounts to a right legitimised by God. This … is quite reasonable, and God will not hate it.”
Saudi Arabia’s most senior cleric also explained that war was never Islam’s ancient founder, the prophet Mohammed’s, first choice: “He gave three options: either accept Islam, or surrender and pay tax, and they will be allowed to remain in their land, observing their religion under the protection of Muslims.” Thus, according to the Grand Mufti, the third option (the sword) was only a last resort, if the non-Muslims refused to convert or surrender peacefully to the armies of Islam.
Sheikh Abdel went on to urge people to read the Koran and Sunnah (the record of Mohammed’s teaching and example) for themselves, pointing out that the Koran has been translated into many of the world’s languages: “Those who read the Koran and the Sunnah can understand the facts.”
On this at least the Archbishop of Sydney and the Saudi Grand Mufti do agree, for in an address earlier this year, Pell also urged people to read the Koran.
So what are these facts contained in the Koran and Sunnah that the Grand Mufti would have us read?
As it happens, reading the Koran is not without its difficulties. There is, for a start, the thorny problem of context. The Koran gives little help with this: it does not mark off specific passages one from another and its 114 chapters (suras) are not laid out in chronological order.
The keys to unlocking the context for individual passages of the Koran can be found in the life of Mohammed, the Sunnah. The sources for the Sunnah are the traditions (hadiths), of which Sunnis recognise six canonical collections, and biographies of Mohammed (sira literature). Although the volume of this material is considerable, it is now largely available in English translation, much of it on the internet.
In addition to the inherent difficulty of the sources, many secular Westerners rely on certain crippling preconceptions. One is the often-heard mantra that “all religions are the same”. Another is the claim that “anyone can justify violence from any religious text”. This idea stretches back at least to Rousseau, who considered any and all forms of religion to be pernicious.
Either of these views, if firmly held, would tend to sabotage anyone’s ability to investigate the Koran’s distinctive take on violence.
There is another obstacle, and that is Western culture’s own sense of guilt and suspicion of what it regards as Christian hypocrisy.
Any attempt to critique some of Islam’s teachings is likely to be met with loud and vociferous denunciations of the church’s moral failings, such as its appalling track record of anti-Semitism. And did I mention the crusades?
Finally, the reality is that Muslims adhere to widely varying beliefs and practices. Most people are understandably afraid to come to their own conclusions about violent passages in the Koran, lest they find themselves demonising Muslims.
But does the Koran incite violence?
It is self-evident that some Koranic verses encourage violence. Consider for example a verse which implies that fighting is “good for you”: “Fighting is prescribed upon you, and you dislike it. But it may happen that you dislike a thing which is good for you, and it may happen that you love a thing which is bad for you. And Allah knows and you know not.” (2:216)
On the other hand, it is equally clear that there are peaceful verses as well: “Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious.” (16:125)
Resolving apparently contradictory messages presents one of the central interpretative challenges of the Koran. Muslims do not agree today on how best to address this. For this reason alone it could be regarded as unreasonable to claim that any one interpretation of the Koran is the correct one.
Nevertheless, a consensus developed very early in the history of Islam about this problem. This method relies on a theory of stages in the development of Mohammed’s prophetic career. It also appeals to a doctrine known as abrogation, which states that verses revealed later can cancel out or qualify verses revealed earlier.
The classical approach to violence in the Koran was neatly summed up in an essay on jihad in the Koran by Sheikh Abdullah bin Muhammad bin Hamid, former chief justice of Saudi Arabia: “So at first ‘the fighting’ was forbidden, then it was permitted and after that it was made obligatory: (1)
against those who start ‘the fighting’ against you (Muslims) … (2) And against all those who worship others along with Allah.”
At the beginning, in Mohammed’s Meccan period, when he was weaker and his followers few, passages of the Koran encouraged peaceful relations and avoidance of conflict: