There is no great lack of ignorance about the religion of Islam in the United States. In a recent New York Times editorial, entitled “Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite”, Jeff Stein relates having asked intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as members of Congress, what the difference is between a Sunni and a Shiite. Not surprisingly, in his quest, he found that “Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting.”
It’s of no slight significance that the Times editorial should, while criticizing ignorance of Islam, describe Muslims as “the enemy”. This is, perhaps needless to say, not atypical. But let us set the notion that Muslims are our “enemy” aside for the moment and concentrate first on the problem of ignorance.
To begin with, the perception that Islam is a religion of violence is a common one. For evidence, subscribers to this notion point to acts of terrorism by people calling themselves “Muslims”, often otherwise referred to as “radical Islamists” or “Islamo-Fascists”, etc.
The fallacy of this logic is simple enough to demonstrate. One simply need point out the many acts of violence committed by those calling themselves “Christians” through the ages. Were the actions of the Crusaders, the Conquistadors, or the Inquisitors representative of the Christian religion? Do we point to the slaughter of Jews and Muslims in Jerusalem, the slaughter of indigenous people in the Americas, or the torture and execution of dissenters in Europe and say, “see, Christianity is a religion of violence”? In the words of the apostle Paul, “certainly not!”
And the historical pattern hasn’t necessarily discontinued. To cite just one contemporary example, very many Christians today virtually rejoice in certain actions of Israel, including its illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and numerous instances of aggression.
Let us accept, therefore, that the actions of some who call themselves by some title or another do not necessarily reflect the true beliefs and teachings of one religion or another. Having done so, we must next ask whether acts of terrorism are truly representative of Islam. There are no shortage of people, not least among the Christian community, who will tell you that the Quran preaches intolerance and violence. They will even cite passages to support their assertion. A common example is a line from Surah 9:5 that reads, “slay the idolaters wherever ye find them…”
Well, that certainly supports the theory that the Quran preaches violence—unless, of course, one is inclined to study the context. Those who quote such passages for such a purpose often fail to provide any context, such as in this case, where the verse just previous explicitly forbids committing any violence against those who keep their peace with you. This Surah refers to a time when Muhammed and his followers had made a treaty with the tribes of non-believers who controlled Mecca, only to have that treaty broken when the opponents of Islam attacked and massacred a tribe allied with the Muslims. Verse 4 states explicitly that those who have kept their treaty are excepted from the command of violence. As for the call to arms, it is explicitly a call to self-defense, not aggression. As verse 13 reads, “Will ye not fight a folk who broke their solemn pledges, and purposed to drive out the messenger and did attack you first?”
Surah 2:191 is another commonly quoted evidence of the violence of Islam. It begins, “And slay them wherever ye find them…” What is left conveniently unmentioned is that the previous verse explicitly forbids violence except in self-defense. “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.” The command to “slay them” refers to those who have engaged in hostilities and is a command to defend against aggressors. The very next verse, similarly conveniently left out in such arguments, explicitly states that if the aggressors cease from their hostilities, Muslims are to “desist”, only to “fight them until persecution is no more”, for “Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”
Most people, most Christians certainly being no exception, would be surprised to learn some other things about what the Quran actually says. It calls the Jews the “Children of Israel” and recognizes the covenant between the God of Abraham and his descendants. It refers to the great prophets of old, such as Moses, who received the Ten Commandments “that ye might be led aright.” It recognizes the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, as “Scripture”, for before the Quran, Allah had “revealed the Torah and the Gospel”.
The Quran describes faithful Jews and Christians as being “People of the Scripture”. They are included with Muslims as those who “believeth in Allah and the Last Day” and who “doeth right”, and says of them that “their reward is with their Lord”. It asks, “And who forsaketh the religion of Abraham save him who befooleth himself?” Where it criticizes Jews and Christians, it is on the grounds that “Ye have naught till ye observe the Torah and the Gospel and that which was revealed unto you from your Lord.” Jesus, it may be noted, made a similar criticism of his people.
As in the New Testament, the Quran speaks of the “Day of Resurrection” and speaks of “Jesus, son of Mary,” the “Messiah” who was supported “with the holy Spirit” who confirmed the Torah that was before him, who ascended to God.
The Quran gives instructions on how to treat women, calling upon men to respect them. Islam raised women from being mere chattel to having legal rights, such as rights of inheritance and, “If a woman feareth ill-treatment from her husband”, divorce.
Criticism of Islam from some Christians is particularly intriguing. One is forced to wonder whether many Christians have ever even read their own Book, much less the Quran. The Bible contains no shortage of passages one could take, either in or out of context, to support the argument that Christianity is a violent religion. Take 1 Samuel 15:3, in which the Israelites are commanded to attack the people of Amalek “and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” There are no similar incitements to genocide within the pages of the Quran. While the command to commit an indiscriminate act of revenge in the Bible is commonly explained away as righteous execution of God’s judgment, the command for Muslims to “slay” those who have engaged in hostilities against them in the Quran is regarded as “terrorism” and the like.
There could, perhaps, be a lesson to be learned from this pattern.
Islam, we are often told, has brought only bloodshed and violence to this earth, history notwithstanding. The fact that Muslim scholars in Baghdad and other great centers of learning studied and translated great works of old, keeping alive centuries of knowledge and expanding upon it while Europe digressed towards barbarism during the Dark Ages, barely makes a dent in the arguments that Islam is the “enemy” of civilization itself.
Compared with the history of Christianity, the relative tolerance of Islam may be dismissed. The mercy of Saladin compared with the bloodlust of the Crusaders as they massacred not only Muslims but also Jews as they sacked Jerusalem was more a representative snapshot than an aberration of history, but we may forget about that.
And thus we return to the recent Times op-ed and the confrontation of the ignorance of Islam. If we were truly interested in combating ignorance, we might begin by accepting a truism from our own tradition, the principle of universality, reflected in the Bible in the words of Jesus when he asked, “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
If we were to discontinue our rejection of this elementary moral principle, we might be able to shed the heavy shroud of ignorance that surrounds us and thus be able to recognize our true enemy. To borrow the memorable words of Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
But that’s a lesson The New York Times is ever so reluctant to impart to us.