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:
- Many violent attacks on civilians are done in the name of Islam.
- The existence of violent Islamic sectarian conflict and the repression of religious dissent in Muslim nations give the lie to the “absurd claim” that Islam is “the religion of peace.”
- Many verses in the Koran call for violence against unbelievers, and these are invoked by Muslims who murder others: “So many Muslims have been encouraged to murder civilians by such exhortations that the rate of violent incidents perpetrated in the name of Islam is staggering, a toll that shows no sign of subsiding.”
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:
- the context in which verses were “revealed” to Muhammad;
- the principle of “abrogation”;
- other passages which address the same subject;
- the life of Muhammad, and
- the way the verse has been applied [by Muslim scholars].
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:
190. And fight in the way of Allah those who fight you, but transgress not the limits. Truly, Allah likes not the transgressors.
191. And kill them wherever you find them, and turn them out from where they have turned you out. And Al-Fitnah is worse than killing. And fight not with them at Al-Masjid Al-Haram (the sanctuary at Makkah), unless they (first) fight you there. But if they attack you, then kill them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers.
192. But if they cease, then Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
193. And fight them until there is no more Fitnah (disbelief and worshipping of others along with Allah) and the religion (all and every kind of worship) is for Allah (Alone). But if they cease, let there be no transgression except against Az-Zalimin (the polytheists and wrongdoers).
194. The sacred month is for the sacred month, and for the prohibited things, there is the Law of equality (Qisas). Then whoever transgresses against you, you transgress likewise against him. And fear Allah, and know that Allah is with Al-Muttaqin.
195. And spend in the cause of Allah and do not throw yourselves into destruction, and do good. Truly, Allah loves Al-Muhsinin (those who do good).[Parentheses in the text.]
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.”