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Food for thought for Quran bashers

Food for thought for Quran Bashers

By Svend White

Sometimes as a Muslim I feel suspect that the simplest, most effective way to begin to answer the many burning questions Westerners have about Islam and Muslims isn’t to give them a Quran or even the most erudite and engaging book on Islam. For many living in our postmodern world, such a discussion needs to start far closer to home, with a crash course in Western religious history and the basic ideas of the Judeo-Christian Tradition. Not only is that often a necessary remedial measure, but in this day of –to borrow an inspired metaphor once applied to U.S.-Iranian relations – “mutual Satanization” I think it is for many probably the only way to begin this critical conversation.

As an undergrad studying French in the early 1990s, I took a class on the Francophone literature of Quebec. Until recently in most Western societies literature was riddled with references to and assumptions of familiarity with the Bible, and this was especially true of Quebec’s literary output thanks to the province’s tradition of being *plus catholique que le pape*.

I was the only non-Christian in the class and my knowledge of the Bible is anything but encyclopedic, yet it sometimes seemed that I was the only student with even a rudimentary familiarity with the famous biblical narratives, events and turns of phrase that were mined at every turn by our Quebecois authors and film makers. During one class room discussion of the wonderful 1989 world cinema classic “Jesus of Montreal”, after painfully obvious Gospel allusion after painfully obvious Gospel allusion had appeared to be zoom over most people’s heads, I remember thinking, “My God, if these guys are so ignorant of their own tradition, what hope is there of explaining the yet more unfamiliar worldview of Muslims?” (For more on this trend, see Stephen Prothero’s stimulating Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn’t.)

In such a backdrop of abject religious illiteracy, the most effective introduction to Islam for the average American may not be a book on Islam at all, but rather an discussion of the parallels of Islam’s supposedly peculiar doctrines and practices that are to be found in one’s own culturo-religious heritage.

It is for this reason I think that Prof. Phillip Jenkins–a noted scholar on contemporary Christianity, especially in Global South–has made an extremely valuable contribution to our national conversation by taking a sledgehammer to the smug sense of self-evident superiority that Christian chauvinists take for granted in discussions of other religions (e.g., Lou Dobbsignorant mischaracterization of Buddhism), Islam in particular. In his soon-to-be published book Dark Passages Jenkins analyzes the examples of and implicit attitudes towards violence and war present in the Old Testament and in Islam’s holy book and comes to some conclusions that will surprise many Americans and which ought to put post-9/11 culture warriors on the defensive for a change.

Not only does the Quran repudiate aggression – as many Muslims today argue, to guffaws in some quarters of American political life – but it is in his estimation far less violent than the Bible. From an article Jenkins recently wrote for The Boston Globe:

Citing examples such as these, some Westerners argue that the Muslim scriptures themselves inspire terrorism, and drive violent jihad. […]

Even Westerners who have never opened the book – especially such people, perhaps – assume that the Koran is filled with calls for militarism and murder, and that those texts shape Islam.

Unconsciously, perhaps, many Christians consider Islam to be a kind of dark shadow of their own faith, with the ugly words of the Koran standing in absolute contrast to the scriptures they themselves cherish. In the minds of ordinary Christians – and Jews – the Koran teaches savagery and warfare, while the Bible offers a message of love, forgiveness, and charity. For the prophet Micah, God’s commands to his people are summarized in the words “act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Christians recall the words of the dying Jesus: “Father, forgive them: they know not what they do.”

But in terms of ordering violence and bloodshed, any simplistic claim about the superiority of the Bible to the Koran would be wildly wrong. In fact, the Bible overflows with “texts of terror,” to borrow a phrase coined by the American theologian Phyllis Trible. The Bible contains far more verses praising or urging bloodshed than does the Koran, and biblical violence is often far more extreme, and marked by more indiscriminate savagery. The Koran often urges believers to fight, yet it also commands that enemies be shown mercy when they surrender. Some frightful portions of the Bible, by contrast, go much further in ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races – of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted (more here).

Like Juan Cole, I think the weight of evidence supports Jenkins’ charge – not that it is a damning one when taken in cultural and historical context–however politically and ideologically incorrect such an admission may be in a time where a sizable swath of the Christian Right is demonizing Muslims (in some cases quite literally). I am not fond of religious apologetics, but I must observe that even the most controversial episodes from Muhammad’s political career (e.g., his harsh reprisals against Jewish tribes in Medina after they, according to Islamic tradition, conspired with the his Meccan foes) – much less the handful of allegedly jingoistic Qur’anic verses cited ad nauseam by Islamophobes – compare to the seemingly divinely sanctioned carnage visited upon various non-Israelite peoples in the Pentateuch, much less the genocidal destruction of the Canaanites told in the Book of Joshua and elsewhere.

It’s not a topic I enjoy discussing or find particularly interesting, but how else does one begin the conversation in so polarized and mutually-Satanized an intellectual climate? Moreover, what I find scandalous is not the presence of appalling violence in an ancient scripture – violence which can, it must be said, be interpreted in variety of ways (e.g., many Biblical scholars today believe the conquest of Canaan recounted in the Hebrew Bible to be mythical, more an expression of nationalist ideology than a factual historical account) – but rather the painful absence of self-awareness on the part of many contemporary critics who ignorantly and offensively denigrate the Qur’an on flimsy grounds while instinctively explaining away far more challenging ethical problems to be found within their own sacred scriptures.

Philosophers sometimes speak of the Principle of Interpretive Charity, which I understand to posit that one is more likely to accurately understand the beliefs of others if one assumes said beliefs to be internally consistent at first blush. Rather than declare the Other irrational (or worse) at the first encounter with a notion that strikes one as inconsistent, superstitious or otherwise irreconcilable with what one knows to be true, the cause of scholarly inquiry is usually far better served by making another pass and seeing if there isn’t another interpretive schema which does not ultimately call into question the humanity of those one is studying.

It is the “Golden Rule” applied to the social sciences and philosophy. As with the Golden Rule, a more conscientious application of this profound insight by all parties to these debates would open the door to infinitely more meaningful dialog. And we might even have a chance to begin to figure out what makes each other tick.


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  • Sam Seed

    There is only one Truth…let who really wants to find it look for it. It is that simple….and you will find it.

  • IbnAbuTalib

    TYO:So a person needs to examine every single religion in the world before saying anything? That would be great if religious people actually did that. Have you?

    Why should a person who says all religions are man made without actually having examined them be taken seriously? I don’t have to examine all religions since I wasn’t the one who made the claim that they were false.

  • TYO

    So a person needs to examine every single religion in the world before saying anything? That would be great if religious people actually did that. Have you? I actually think more people should objectively study as many religions all over the world and agnosticism and atheism, and feel free to review and free to criticize all of them including agnosticism and atheism.

    I think all societies in all states in all countries should allow all their people full access to all religions in the world for them to review objectively with healthy skepticism, and AS WELL expose themselves to non-religious thought be it agnosticism or atheism. Individuals should be free to choose their own religion even if it is different from their families, or choose no religion. They may or may not come to the same as me – that all religions are created by man in more primitive times to explain what today science does so much better, and what human rights womens rights, child rights animal rights do well across all boundaries. Freedom of religion or of no religion.

  • IbnAbuTalib

    TYO:All religions are created by man. All scriptures are created by man, and reflect the good and the evil in man, and pass it off as God’s.

    Really? Have you gone examined all the religions of the world? This is not the first time you have made such gratuitous claims. I wonder what you agenda really is.

    TYO: No one should take religion too seriously to the point of not using their own common sense.

    You are guilty of that. You obviously have not examined all religions. Maybe some, but it is logical fallacy to say that something holds for “all” because it holds for “some”. Clearly, you have taken your skepticism to the point of letting it overcome your common sense.

  • TYO

    All religions are created by man. All scriptures are created by man, and reflect the good and the evil in man, and pass it off as God’s. No one should take religion too seriously to the point of not using their own common sense. The conflict between Christians and Muslims shows the ugliness in the other faith. These two are not good in self reflection. So this conflict is good in showing neither is better than the other. They both are problematic. This conflict should be educational for everyone not fundamentalist in Christianity and Islam, and I think also good for religious folk too. It shows neither is perfect and both have terrible scriptures along with nice scriptures. Overall I think this will make people less piously arrogant and think they are above all criticism.

  • Garibaldi – Thanks for pointing that out. I’ve now bookmarked Svend White’s blog for future reading pleasure :grin:.

  • Sam and Stephen,
    This article is actually by Svend White, you can read his blog here, and not from Danios, he only reposted it. The confusion might have occurred because of the format of the post.

    I agree with you however that it is a great article.

  • Sam Seed

    Nice article Danios! Can Ezekiel Chapter 23 of the Bible be considered the word of God? The language is so lewd! What say Christians?

  • Well put, Danios. Thanks for pointing out the ‘principle of interpretive charity’. It’s a principle I almost instinctively recognize, although previously I didn’t have a name for it. When a non-Christian points out something like Jesus saying he did not come to bring peace, but a sword, Christians are quick to (correctly) point out that this was not meant as a literal statement; and that he was simply stating that it was inevitable that his teaching would bring strife due to the opposition of those who rejected his message. It was not an exhortation for his disciples to ‘take up the sword’ and militarily enforce Christianity. But they’re not willing to allow people of other faiths the same leeway to defend their ‘scriptures’ from what appear to them to be misconceptions. We need to learn to do to others as we wish them to do to us in ‘scripture interpretation’ as well as all other areas of life.

  • Abdulmajid

    “Some frightful portions of the Bible, by contrast, go much further in ordering the total extermination of enemies, of whole families and races – of men, women, and children, and even their livestock, with no quarter granted”. Exactly, that is why the crusaders of teh Middle Ages in Palestine and the modern crusaders in Bosnia-Herzegovina sought (and in Bosnia’s case continue to seek) the destruction of Bosnian Muslims. While the Bosniaks have never soughtto eliminate non-Muslims from Bosnia nor to establish an Islamic state. But the serbofascists out there, especially many diaspora Serbs in the USA, Canada, Australia, Great Britain and Austria continue to blab that Karadzic propaganda lie and to whitewash themselves from genocide and to peddle that their genocidal anti-Bosniak crusade is “fight against international terrorism”. Kurt Westergaards caricature of our Prophet (s.a.w.s) with a bomb in his turban is also not “criticism of Islam” nor is it fun, because it implies that “Islam = terror”. Now , unfortunately if someone tries to kill him, or even to slap his face, or somehow to force him to withdraw it, he will give him right. It would be better to sue him and those like him for slander and libel.

  • Pelikan

    What would you answer an atheist, claiming that both books are evil and should be burnt (or at least regarded as dangerous fairy tales from a distant past)?

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