Over the past few years, Western leaders whose knowledge of Muslim scripture is scanty in the extreme have repeatedly been obliged to pose as experts on Islam. The atrocities currently being committed by jihadis in the Middle East have prompted them to a particular slew of commentary. John Kerry, speaking recently in Iraq, was typical. The Islamic State, he declared, “claims to be fighting on behalf of Islam but the fact is that its hateful ideology has nothing to do with Islam.” A reassuring assertion, and one that almost everyone, including the vast majority of Muslims, would desperately like to believe – but wishful thinking, all the same.
The grim truth is that sanctions can be found in the Qur’an, in the biographies of Muhammad and in the histories of early Islam for much that strikes the outside world as most horrific about the Islamic state. “Kuffar are afraid we will slaughter yazidis,” a British jihadi tweeted recently from Syria, “our deen [religion/ law] is clear we will kill their men, take their women and children as slaves insha Allah.” That this reading of assorted qur’anic verses and episodes from the life of the Prophet is the most brutal one imaginable does not necessarily invalidate it. To be sure, there are other, richer, more nuanced interpretations possible – and yes, the bone-headed literalism of those who would interpret the Qur’an as a license to maim, enslave and kill represents a challenge to everyone who prizes it as a revelation from God, supremely compassionate and supremely wise. That is no reason, though, to play the jihadis’ own takfiri game, and deny them a status as Muslims. The very appeal of their sanguinary interpretation of Islamic scripture is far too lethal to permit such a tactic. It is not enough to engage with the jihadis solely on the battlefield. They must be defeated as well in mosques, and libraries, and seminar rooms. This is a battle that, in the long run, can only be won by theologians.
How best to establish, for instance, that the actions of jihadis in beheading their foes are indeed contrary to Islam? Fighters for the Islamic State might well point out that the Qur’an describes angels decapitating unbelievers with the aim of spreading terror; that the first Muslims are described as harvesting heads on the battlefield of Badr; that Muhammad himself is said to have owned a sword that can be translated as ‘Cleaver of Vertebrae’. It is not enough, within such a context, merely to insist that Islam is a religion of peace, and leave it at that. Muslim scholars have an urgent responsibility to demonstrate in the most painstaking detail exactly where and why the jihadis are wrong. Just as Christian intellectuals, in the wake of the Holocaust, were obliged to confront the evil purposes to which the New Testament had been put, and recalibrate their understanding of it on a theological level, so do their Muslim counterparts today need to redeem their own scriptures from the taint of savagery that is doing so much to blacken the image of their religion.
One possible methodology for helping to achieve this might derive from an unexpected source: the scholarly revolution which over the past forty years has revolutionised historians’ understanding of early Islam and the origins of the Qur’an. It is a piquant irony that the salafist impulse to strip away the cladding of tradition, and return to an understanding of Islam’s beginnings that does not depend upon subsequent accretions and distortions to the historical record, has had a close parallel in universities. Where Salafists locate the radiant light of certainty, though, Western scholars have tended to find the opposite.
“Qur’anic studies, as a field of academic research, appears today to be in a state of disarray.” Such is the frank admission of Fred Donner, Professor of Near Eastern History at Chicago. “Those of us who study Islam’s origins,” he has confessed, “have to admit collectively that we simply do not know some very basic things about the Qur’an – things so basic that the knowledge of them is usually taken for granted by scholars dealing with other texts.” Its place of origin, its original form, its initial audience – all are mysteries. That being so, it is certainly no longer possible to presume that there is anything remotely self-evident about the birth of Islam. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other field of history so currently riven by disagreement.
In time, this inexorable process of historicisation is bound to have an impact upon the literalism with which many Muslims today are tempted to interpret their scriptures. When the evidence for what the historical Muhammad said and did is so patchy, and when the traditional explanations of how the Qur’an emerged are so contested, it becomes increasingly difficult to insist that the inheritance of Islamic scripture is not thoroughly contingent. At the moment, the notion that Muslim beliefs are as historically conditioned as any other ideology inherited from the past is seen by most Muslims as highly threatening; but in the long run this will surely change. Recognising that the stories told about Muhammad are fictions bred of a particular context and period, and that the potential interpretations of the Qur’an need not necessarily be circumscribed by traditional exegesis, should facilitate the emergence, over the course of the next century, of a clearly Western form of Islam. It is one, I suspect and very much hope, in which there will no longer be a place for ritual beheading.
Tom Holland is the author, most recently, of In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World
Image from Wikimedia available in the public domain.