Islam, Islamism, and Moderation

The distinction frequently drawn between Islam, which is said to be moderate and peaceable, and Islamism, which is understood as a perversion of the cardinal tenets of the faith, seems both academic and unhelpful. Dutch politician Geert Wilders has claimed that no distinction exists “between good Islam and bad Islam. There is Islam and that’s it.” Might he be right?

There must obviously be something inherent in Islam which allows for large numbers of believers to kill and maim without compunction while sacrificing their own lives in the process. We do not see Christian or Jewish “terrorists” ramming jetliners into skyscrapers and the Pentagon, taking many thousands of innocent lives. We do not see them regularly blowing themselves up in crowded marketplaces, killing unarmed soldiers on American soil, or setting off incendiary devices on passenger jets. Beheadings, acid attacks, stonings, honor killings, burnings, kidnappings, and shooting sprees are not a staple of common Western behavior. The difference is incommensurable and those, primarily on the left, who labor to fudge the distinction by claiming a Jewish or Christian equivalence with the religious savagery of the Islamic world are in bad faith, and are nothing less than apologists for Islamic terror. Admittedly, from time to time a Baruch Goldstein or a Timothy McVeigh goes on a slaughter rampage, but such events are striking precisely because they are anomalous, whereas Muslim violence around the globe is almost a daily occurrence and is prescribed in the pages of the Koran.

It is true, as many scholars have remarked, that the earlier, Meccan portion of the Koran (610-622 C.E.) attests to a degree of tolerance, but the later, Medinese writings (622-632 C.E.), with but few exceptions, show little mercy to the unbeliever. There we find most of the ordinances relating to holy war. Andrew Bostom, author of The Legacy of Jihad, a veritable Encyclopedia Islamica, draws our attention to a famous hadith (or saying of Mohammed), no. 0272 in the Kitab Al-Iman, which decrees, “the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) said: Verily the faith would recede to Medina just as the serpent crawls back into its hole.” The ophidian haven, we note, is not Mecca but Medina.

Even a cursory reading of the Koran will reveal that, like most scriptures, it is rife with contradictions. Such discrepancies are generally resolved by the principle of naskh, the doctrine of “progressive revelation,” according to which later revelations may cancel out earlier ones, giving doctrinal (if not temporal) priority to the Medinese section of the Koran. The earlier surahs, or chapters, that speak of peace and harmony could thus be abrogated or annulled (mansukh) by those which come afterward. The Koran itself permits such revision. Surah 2:106 reads: “We do not abrogate a verse or let it be forgotten without substituting a better or similar one.” But this is an old story, and the problem has been studied as far back as the 9th century Arab philosopher al-Kindi who, as Arabist Robert Irwin writes in For Lust of Knowing, “pointed to areas where the Qu’ran appeared to contradict itself and queried the Muslim doctrine of abrogation.”

Occasionally, a particular surah will even self-abrogate. Consider the celebrated surah 5:32, often cited by Muslims to emphasize the peaceful nature of Islam, which states that anyone who kills another human being “should be regarded as though he had killed all mankind.” There are several problems with this passage. To begin with, the phrasing is an almost exact replica of Eduyot 1:6 in the Hebrew Mishnah, circa 200 C.E. and collected in the Talmud, where it is written: “whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world.” Such passages seem to justify the conviction of many scholars, going back to Ernest Renan’s essay Mahomet and the Origins of Islamism, that much of the Koran is a pastiche of Biblical sources, Talmudic traditions, and the Apocrypha.

Yet just as troubling, this Koranic verse immediately introduces an exception -- “except as punishment for murder or other wicked crimes” -- leaving the definition of “wicked crimes” open to interpretation. (Such a “wicked crime” is specified in 2:90 as unbelief: “May Allah’s curse be upon infidels. To deny Allah’s own revelation … they have incurred Allah’s most inexorable wrath.”) Further -- and this is the sticking point -- the very next verse appears to revoke its predecessor: “Those that make war against Allah and His apostle and spread disorders in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off.” The notion of making war on Allah may obviously be interpreted in any number of different ways and indeed already has; spreading disorders is also open to interpretation and readily eventuates in the judicial killing of another human being. This is the theological rationale behind the current juridical atrocities in Iran, where people are executed as mohareb, “enemies of God.”

In asserting the peaceful nature of Islam against all the evidence to the contrary, many Muslims and their enablers will often bring up Surah 2:256, the famous “There is no compulsion in religion” dictum, which has been violated since time immemorial and is contradicted by innumerable other passages in the Koran. Surah 9:29, for example, is unambiguous: “Fight those of the People of the Book who do not truly believe in God and the Last Day, who do not forbid what God and his Messenger have forbidden, who do not obey the rule of justice, until they pay the tax and agree to submit.” Surah 9:5 enjoins the believer to “Fight and slay the Pagans wherever you may find them.” Surah 4:89 does not temporize with apostates: “If they desert you, seize them and put them to death wherever you find them.” The litany is interminable. It should be needless to say that to draw attention to such injunctions and their translation into practice cannot credibly be denounced as Islamophobic. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of The Values Network and author of Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life, who happens to take a broadly sympathetic view of Islam, cuts to the chase when he avers that “there can be no greater insult to the religion than to behave inhumanely while claiming to live by a higher spiritual and moral code.”

As might be expected, criticism of the Koran or of many of its decrees will be countered by Islamic scholars who depose that the passages in question have not been properly contextualized or competently parsed on the level of grammar, vocabulary, and classical usage. This is precisely the tack adopted by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem in the Introduction to his new translation of the Koran. But as any practicing Muslim knows, Koranic verses are understood to be eternally valid and always applicable in any or all circumstances. Haleem is unfazed and patently derelict with the truth. The conclusion he arrives at is that the “prevalent message of the Qur’an is one of peace and tolerance.”