Reading the Quran during an Election Year
I wonder sometimes if Abraham Lincoln made a terrible mistake when he set Thanksgiving as a national holiday in the final days of November, knowing full well that every fourth year a presidential election would have just taken place. How cruel for the Great Emancipator to shackle us to a dinner table with distant relatives on a crisp fall day and hear what they have to say about the government. There is no family dinner topic more feared by some and feverishly seized upon by others than politics. Expect perhaps religion. This year it seems we have the two more tightly bound together than usual. Given the book I’ve decided to pick up next for the Letters Republic project, I expect a lively conversation on November 22.
But it ain’t just Islam that gets our blood up. Consider for a moment how many religions are on tip of the public’s tongue, cross-pollinatated with politics. A selection:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – Interest in Mormonism is at historic highs thanks to Governor Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacy, with many smart people trying to figure out exactly what the Church teaches.
Catholic Church – Though coverage is difficult to whittle down to a single story, the big issue trending of late has been the row between U.S. bishops and the Obama Administration over mandates associated with the Affordable Care Act.
Judaism – If it is true that (as Harvard Professor Shaye Cohen says) Israel is for Jews what the Church is for Christians, than Judaism is very much in the political cross hairs. Latest item on the docket: Israel’s Prime Minister has strong opinions on the American election and U.S. foreign policy.
Islam – Finally, we come to Islam. In the last couple decades, there has been no faith group whose adherents have been seen to violently target critics and nonbelievers more than Islam. As the author Salman Rushdie, no stranger to Islamic extremism, said to NPR this week, “The fact that in the last half-century, (Islamic) cultures seem to have slid backwards into medievalism and repression is one of the – I think it’s one of the great self-inflicted wounds. And out of that comes the rise of this new, much harsher Islam… the thin-skinnedness, the paranoia, the ease with which violence is engaged in, the readiness to believe that it’s OK to kill people if you declare yourself offended by something.”
Rushdie says this attitude is the mindset of the fanatic, and I would agree. But is fanaticism necessary to Islam? Is the Quran a fundamentally violent book that advocates killing people? Or is fanaticism borne from a perversion of the text? After all, every religion inevitably strikes a balance between literal adherence to its inspired texts and a cultural exegesis of what they mean. For example, the Torah and the Talmud, the New Testament and Catholic Sacred tradition, the Quran and Tafsir. Even the most impassioned Protestant groups whose sole Latin phrase is sola scriptura will succumb to relying on the footnotes to make sense of their oft impenetrable Scripture.
So, as for Islam, is it a violent religion at its core or not? Frankly, I don’t know. Like most people, I know very, very little about Islam. To find out, I guess I’ll have to buckle down and actually read the Quran. The reported number of Americans who have read this book is as low as two percent. I believe it. Hell, the number of espoused Christian Americans who’ve read their own religious texts is woefully low at 31 percent. Some say it is actually as little as 10 percent. No surprise then that we know squat about Islam. A 2006 Op-Ed piece in the New York Times gave anecdotal evidence that top U.S. brass didn’t know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. And they’re the ones dealing with this every day. What about the rest of us? Can you honestly say you’ve spent some time learning about a religion that has been at the center of the national conversation for the past decade?
Those that have read the Quran come away from the experience with wildly different perspectives. Some say the Quran is at the core of Islamic extremism and terrorism, and others warn that the devil is in the details. As non-Muslim Lesley Hazleton notes in a TED talk
“The fact that so few people actually read the Quran is precisely the reason it is so easy to quote. That is, to misquote. Phrases and snippets taken out of context in what I call the highlighter version, which is the one favored both my fundamentalists and anti-Muslim Islamaphobes.”
If we know nothing else about the Quran, we probably know about the most famous of these snippets, misused by both fundamentalists and critics. It is called the Verse of the Sword in Sura 9. It reads, in one translation:
When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.
Critics point to this line as evidence of the inherent violence of Islam. Does it really say that, you ask? Well, yes it does. Sort of. The word idolater is actually not directed at Jews and Christians, but at the specific polytheistic foes of early Muslims who were waging war against them during Muhammad’s lifetime. So first off, the verse has a historical context not dissimilar from God’s commands to the Israelites in Deutoronomy to drive out the inhabitants of the Land of Canaan:
Only in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not leave alive anything that breathes. But you shall utterly destroy them: the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that they may not teach you to do according to all their detestable things which they have done for their gods, so that you would sin against the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 20:16–18, NASB)
Islam’s opponents have a response to this critique (Deuteronomy is restrictive in only calling for the slaughter of specific peoples), but frankly I find it wanting. More to the point is that the Verse of the Sword is mitigated by the many calls for mercy found within the Quran, and also the tempering of the Verse of the Sword itself. Here is the whole passage with some key phrases highlighted:
Proclaim a woeful punishment to the unbelievers, except to those idolaters who have honored their treaties with you in every detail and aided none against you. With these keep faith, until their treaties have run their term. God loves the righteous.
When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is forgiving and merciful.
If an idolater seeks asylum with you, give him protection so that he may hear the Word of God, and then convey him to safety. For the idolaters are ignorant men.
God and His apostle repose no trust in idolaters, save those with whom you have made treaties at the Sacred Mosque. So long as they keep faith with you, keep faith with them. God loves the righteous.
Is it the “turn the other cheek” pacificism of Jesus Christ? No. But neither is it a boundless call for mass murder. The Quran is, like any religious text, a challenging read that contains both its literal meaning and allegorical and cultural meanings layered on through the centuries. At the very least, it is a book worth reading.
So I will be reading the Quran in its entirety over the next few weeks. Should be interesting fodder for conversation just in time for Thanksgiving.