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 Dobbs’ ignorant 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.