What’s the play actually about, anyway?
Sometimes you come across something that, almost in passing, so glaringly reveals an underlying truth about its subject matter that it takes your breath away.
This week some random guys who adhere to no identifiable ideology or religion just randomly decided to light off a couple of bombs in Belgium. It was a bad week for workplace violence, in other words. And in other news, the president enjoyed yukking it up at the ballgame with a murderously oppressive regime. But I digress.
In follow-up to the Brussels bombings, this article ran in USA Today. The headline sort of tips the author’s hand: “The Quran’s deadly role in inspiring Belgian slaughter,” by a fellow identified as Nabeel Qureshi. From his self-description and how he relates his family background, he seems to be one of those adherents of the Religion of Peace that is being referred to on that silly “Coexist” bumper sticker. His father spent a career in the U.S. Navy, starting as a seaman and retiring as a lieutenant commander (which, by the way, tells you his father must have been pretty hot stuff, to make it that far up from that far down). “As a Muslim growing up in the United States, I was taught by my imams and the community around me that Islam is a religion of peace. My family modeled love for others and love for country, and not just by their words.”
All to the good. I’d have no problem with him, or his family, for my next-door neighbors, any more than I’d object to any other American family.
But let’s let Comrade Qureshi tell it himself:
“As a young Muslim boy growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, it was impossible for me to look up a hadith unless I traveled to an Islamic library, something I would have never thought to do. For all intents and purposes, if I wanted to know about the traditions of Muhammad, I had to ask imams or elders in my tradition of Islam.” That is, as he notes, no longer the case. Just as the Bible’s translation into the vernacular enabled the masses to access for themselves just what exactly scripture has to say about any particular thing, without the interposition of the clerisy, so today’s Muslim masses can look it up for themselves.
And just what are they finding? Why, they’re finding the same things that Qureshi did, once he no longer was reliant upon his elders and imams. “Yet as I began to investigate the Quran and the traditions of Muhammad’s life for myself in college, I found to my genuine surprise that the pages of Islamic history are filled with violence.”
“When everyday Muslims investigate the Quran and hadith for themselves, bypassing centuries of tradition and their imams’ interpretations, they are confronted with the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations of their faith.” “The Quran itself reveals a trajectory of jihad reflected in the almost 23 years of Muhammad’s prophetic career. As I demonstrate carefully in my book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward, starting with peaceful teachings and proclamations of monotheism, Muhammad’s message featured violence with increasing intensity, culminating in surah 9, chronologically the last major chapter of the Quran, and its most expansively violent teaching. Throughout history, Muslim theologians have understood and taught this progression, that the message of the Quran culminates in its ninth chapter.” [N.b. The foregoing quoted language has links in it over at the USA Today website.]
Qureshi then pulls a few chestnuts out: “Surah 9 is a command to disavow all treaties with polytheists and to subjugate Jews and Christians (9.29) so that Islam may ‘prevail over all religions’ (9.33). It is fair to wonder whether any non-Muslims in the world are immune from being attacked, subdued or assimilated under this command. Muslims must fight, according to this final chapter of the Quran, and if they do not, then their faith is called into question and they are counted among the hypocrites (9.44-45). If they do fight, they are promised one of two rewards, either spoils of war or heaven through martyrdom. Allah has made a bargain with the mujahid who obeys: Kill or be killed in battle, and paradise awaits (9.111).”
According to Qureshi, the implications of Surah 9 are acknowledged by modern Muslim theologians. “Muslim thought leaders agree that the Quran promotes such violence.” And there’s the rub: The most potent recruiting tool and mechanism for radicalization available to ISIS is . . . just quoting the foundational documents of their religion. “With frequent references to the highest sources of authority in Islam, the Quran and hadith (the collection of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad), ISIL enjoins upon Muslims their duty to fight against the enemies of Islam and to emigrate to the Islamic State once it has been established.”
And that, folks, peels away quite a bit of bullshit that’s being peddled by self-loathing Westerners. The “extremists” among the Muslims have the theologically better argument of their “moderate” or assimilated co-religionists. That is the irreducible fact that stares us in the face over the shards of glass and spattered bits of airline customers.
Pity the Muslims don’t have the theological equivalent of modern U.S. Supreme Court jurists to explain to them that all those words simply don’t mean what they say. No, when ISIS wants to convince a young Muslim man that his most solemn duty is to fight, kill, and maybe die in order to subjugate practitioners of any religion other than strict-form Islam, they perversely go out and just show him the actual words and have the temerity to suggest to him that they mean precisely what they say.
Deconstructionism, in other words, hasn’t made very deep inroads into Islam.
A couple of quick points. Islam appears to be enjoying something of the same process that Christianity went through, at least in its early phases, with the Reformation. There was a reason, after all, why for so long either translating the Bible into the vernacular, or even possession of a translated Bible was a capital offense. Literally. Get caught with a Wyclif Bible and they’d make short work of you. Step 1 of the Reformation was therefore what is now known as “disintermediation.” It’s really not much more than the same process as online commerce. The internet has largely dissolved the barriers between the ordinary Joe on the “Islamic Street” and the authoritative pronouncements of his faith’s founding documents. Generally disintermediation is a very good thing. Anything which undercuts the ipse dixit hierarchy of any one group (priests, imams, broadcast network news shows, judges) over another, by providing the people that walked in darkness direct access to ultimate authority (Holy Scripture, the Koran, multiple independent news sources, or the actual words of constitutions and statutes) is to be praised on that ground alone. I’ll state that as a categorical.
So what is to be done if the ultimate authority commands, in pretty plain language, behaviors such as we have seen in Brussels, Paris, New York, Madrid, London, and so forth?
I honestly don’t know. It seems to me that the fellow quoted by Qureshi has a long, hard slog ahead of him, and whether the thing is to be done at all must be seen as wholly questionable: “Maajid Nawaz, co-founder of the Quilliam Foundation in the United Kingdom, has said, ‘We Muslims must admit there are challenging Quranic passages that require reinterpretation today. … Only by rejecting vacuous literalism are we able to condemn, in principle, ISIS-style slavery, beheading, lashing, amputation & other medieval practices forever (all of which are in the Quran). … Reformers either win, and get religion-neutral politics, or lose, and get ISIL-style theocracy.’ In other words, Muslims must depart from the literal reading of the Quran in order to create a jihad-free Islamic world.” By his own words he may well be chasing a will-o-the-wisp. What Nawaz calls “vacuous literalism” the boys of ISIS can call “the words’ plain meaning,” without strained or sophistical reading. And slavery, beheading, lashing, amputation, and “other medieval practices” are “all . . . in the Koran.” Well, of course they are; that’s what makes it so straightforward to convince the jihadisti that they are commands of Allah. Just read the damned words, boy, and make up your mind for yourself.
And what is this about creating a “jihad-free Islamic world” in the first place? If jihad is part of the central framework of Islamic existence in this world, then how can you excise it and still call what you’re left with “Islamic”? I recall once, a number of years ago, this billboard alongside the interstate in a city near where I live. It was from one of these First Church of What’s Happening Now, where Christianity is on offer as a practical therapeutic lifestyle option. The billboard encouraged the wanderer to come discover “a non-religious path to God.” That is an oxymoron plain and simple, folks. It seems as though what Qureshi is positing is the same sort of oxymoron.
The Protestant movement’s most powerful arguments rested on the elemental fact that, once translated and accessible, Holy Scripture was seen not to provide authority for quite a bit of what had grown to encrust the Roman Catholic church as an institution. The problem today is that what the ISIS recruiters are propounding can be seen to be very much in the Koran, in exactly as many words as they’re saying.
Islam is not, in other words, a Religion of Peace, not on its own terms, read in the ordinary sense of the words actually used, without contorting them into their opposites.
The situation outlined by Qureshi makes it doubtful whether anything like a Protestant Reformation can ever be in the cards for Islam. Accomplishing that would require millions of Muslims all over the world to believe in the in-most recesses of their hearts that the ordinary words of the foundational texts just do not mean what they so obviously say. How do you convince people of an argument the unspoken subtext of which is: “Mohammed didn’t know what he was talking about”? My understanding of Islamic dogma is that the Koran’s words are not actually those of the prophet, but rather of Allah himself. Quite different from even the most literalist Christian fundamentalist, believing every word in the King James Version to be divinely inspired. To “interpret” the Koran in a way which would allow peaceful coexistence requires you to accept either that, to some extent, Mohammed was a false prophet because he failed accurately to transmit Allah’s pronouncements, or alternatively, that Allah knowingly allowed his words to be mis-transcribed. How can either of those suggestions be acceptable to a devout Muslim?
Not all problems have solutions. I very greatly fear that Islam is among the problems that don’t.