Saturday, November 1, 2014

Islam is Not a Religion of Peace

Nor is it a religion of war. A review of the Quran.

Muhammed is the Apostle
Of God; and those who are
With him are strong
Against Unbelievers, (but)
Compassionate amongst each other.
 (48:29)
As scripture, the Quran stands head and shoulders above its relatives in some respects. It is clear, (if tediously long and repetitive), not given to parables and riddles. Nor is it given to obscure genologies and mythical tales (other than a few retold from the Jewish and Christian traditions). It is explicit on many points, giving rules for behavior and hammering home its points about who and what are good and bad. Its general world view is also refreshingly simple. The world's beauty and gifts, especially the wonders of biology, are clear signs of the one god, and one would have to be an idiot or worse to doubt them and thus the Apostle's message, which comes directly from god.
And among His Signs
Is the creation of the heavens
And the earth, and the variations
In your languages
And your colors: verily
In that are Signs
For those who know.
 (30:22)
(The version I am using dates from sixty-eight years ago, well before the political correctness that beset the field since 2001. It is also a version that reads very well and is abundantly annotated. The text runs to 1800 pages.)

The Quran's provinance is also far more secure than those of the other scriptures, being assembled within twenty years of Muhammed's death by order of the rulers of the community. The ancillary Hadith is less secure, but that is another matter. Muhammed's existence is also far better attested than that of the other prophets, from Jesus back to Moses, Abraham, Noah, Adam, and into the mists of time, many of whom, if not all, are mythical, or very heavily mythicised. Muhammed had a very active and well-recorded life, full of commerce, revelation, warfare, and preaching. Indeed, he took special exception to the deification of Jesus, making it a tenet of Islam that Jesus as one of the prior apostles was a normal man with (some) divine inspiration. One might note in passing, however, that the seemingly universal practice of Muslims to never refer to Muhammed without wishing peace be upon him amounts to a furtive deification / sanctification of the apostle. He is most certainly in the finest possible position of heaven by this doctrine, and hardly needs assistance of any kind from the sinners here below.

The Muslim doctrine, aside from a few defects that I will get to, is also a highly moral one, which repeatedly invokes a very simple formula for community membership- belief in god and obedience to his apostle, virtuous moral action, modesty and circumspection in all affairs, and charitable giving to the poor. There are other incidental tasks, such as praying, food restrictions, and the hajj, (incidentally, Islam is about the only modern religion still employing animal sacrifice, which takes place during the hajj), but the basics are admirably simple and doubtless contribute to the attraction of this religion to so many people, and to their self-understanding that it is an almost self-evident doctrine. The Quran also enjoins believers to give charity with open arms and a positive attitude- something that our current Republicans might do well to emulate, our tax system being, in essence, precisely the kind of alms and charity distribution system (plus a little jihad) that Islam envisions.
But some of the desert Arabs
Believe in God and the Last Day,
And look on their payments
As pious gifts bringing them
Nearer to God, and obtaining
The prayers of the apostle.
Aye, indeed they bring them
Nearer (to Him): soon will God
Admit them to His Mercy:
For God is Oft-Forgiving,
Most Merciful
 (9:99)
Unfortunately, Muhammed was faced with a lot of disbelievers in his time, as is reiterated on virtually every page. They are assigned to hell in innumerable ways, sometimes mild, sometimes excruciating. But the repetition of this theme is striking, seeming to signify some insecurity about the clarity and confidence otherwise expressed. Its endless repetition also functions as a sort of hypnotic mantra. Sometimes he takes the mild approach, assuring listeners that, despite the apparent success of unbelievers in this life, with riches and sons, god will mete our their just deserts in the afterlife. But frequently, hatred gets the better of him, and unbelievers are reviled where they are, threatened with various horrible fates in this world, and subject to terror by the (always virtuous) believers. He recurs frequently to the tales of Noah, Moses, Lot, et al. to make clear that unbelievers stand a very good chance of being struck down in this life, en masse, God-willing.
Those who reject
Our Signs, We shall soon
Cast into the Fire;
As often as their skins
Are roasted through,
We shall change them
For fresh skins,
That they may taste
The Penalty: for God
Is Exalted in Power, Wise.
 (4:56)
There is also an odd lack of certainty sometimes, as though the speaker, though being god, isn't entirely sure of some facts or events events. He recounts (18:22) an old Christian story of boys who happened upon a cave and fell asleep there, for a few centuries, only to find on waking that the Christianity that was reviled by the Roman authorities before is now the state religion. Only, the teller of the tale isn't sure whether there were three boys, or five, or seven. It doesn't inspire confidence, frankly. Likewise, he retells the immaculate conception story of Mary having been impregnated by god, but later claims that Jesus was a normal man like all others, not in any way a deity. And that nor did god ever have a son. Logically, it doesn't quite make sense, especially as told by an omniscient being, but makes more sense as a sop to tradition.
Have We not created
You from a fluid
(Held) despicable? 
The which We placed
In a place of rest,
Firmly fixed, 
For a period (of gestation),
Determined (According to need)? 
For We do determine
(According to need); for We
Are the Best to determine (things). 
Ah woe, that Day!
To the Rejectors of Truth!
 (77:20-24)
More generally, the book claims to be full of truths, but the information communicated is meagre. Belief is extolled ad nauseum, as is truth, but no scintilla of knowledge not commonly known at the time is related. This is especially notable in its celebration of biology and the heavens, which are given repeatedly as strong signs of god and his beneficence. Where is the knowledge of breeding, of evolution, of development, and of genetics? (Hey, how about a funny biology song?) The author claims simply that god has made everyone, and can make or unmake people at will. Where is the knowledge of the history of biology and scale the universe? The birth of Adam is recounted as the origin of humanity, in the story of the garden of Eden. As a source of knowledge, the Quran comes off poorly indeed. Imagine how mind-blowing it would have been for an ancient scripture to tell the true story of our origins and nature, taking it as a lesson on the great preciousness and rarity of our existence, and the momentous stewardship we have been granted.
Praise be to God,
Who hath sent to His Servant
The Book, and hath allowed
Therein no Crookedness: 
(He hath made it) Straight
(And Clear) in order that
He may warn (the godless)
Of a terrible Punishment
From Him, and that He
May give Glad Tidings
To the Believers who work
Righteous deeds, that they
Shall have a goodly Reward, 
Wherein they shall
Remain forever:
 (18:1-3)
There are also some theological confusions. God is free of all wants (14:8, and elsewhere), but at the same time wants all kinds of adulation and submission, wants unbelievers to spend eternity in Hell, wants moral behavior in peace and martial behavior in war, indeed, has transmitted a book full of wants.

Pagans and unbelievers are assigned to hell on virtually every page. But they also are promised ill fortune in this life, though sometimes they might do just fine, as god is just staying his hand till some more convenient moment. Indeed, sometimes they are so rich with money and sons that it drives believers positively apoplectic, and to doubt that they are on the right side after all. The Quran tries its best to quiet such doubts, asserting time and again that whatever the current situation, (and however detestable the unbelievers, and whether they may be crushed and destroyed in this world as many other whole tribes have been before by earthquake, flood, or fire, or the sword, or ...), god sees all and will send them to the fire when they die. If not before.

The Santa Claus nature of all this is unmistakable. Charming in its simplicity, but intellectually not at a very high level. God sees all, and will balance all accounts in the final judgement. All the good actions of this life will be rewarded. Except that unbelief seems to cancel them all out. Unbelievers in the Quran can never be good. They are perverse, lying, deceitful, blind, arrogant, mocking ... the list is endless. So the doctrine never has to grapple with the problem of positive moral behavior among non-Muslims. This applies apparently both to the time of death, and to a final judgement, which is mentioned, along with bodily resurrection of the believers, as an evident bow to the Christian system, but is not very well fleshed out, if you will excuse the pun. I could never tell whether I, for example, would go to hell immediately upon death, or whether that would await a general judgement day. The whole thing is, theologically, a jumbled mishmash of past beliefs, and looks much more like a psycho-mechanical contrivance for belief propagation than it is a search for, or convincing explanation of, truth.
O ye who believe!
Ask not questions
About things which,
If made plain to you,
May cause you trouble.
But if ye ask about things
When the Quran is being Revealed,
They will be made plain to you,
 For God is Oft-forgiving,
 Most forbearing.

 Some people before you
 Did ask such questions,
 And on that account
 Lost their faith.
  (5:104-105)
This god is also the most passive-aggressive character in all literature. The signs of his existence are no more than the mundane / glorious / mysterious conditions of nature, which admittedly in Muhammed's day, merited virtually unlimited awe. But if you don't believe in him, (and, notably, obey his humble Apostle), he will get you when you are least aware, and haul you off to everlasting hell fire. On the one hand, the whole Apostle thing comes off as a ego trip without parallel, while on the other, if god were so merciful and powerful, why would Satan (Iblis) be given leave to mislead so many hearts for so much time- why would anyone listen to him and not to god? It makes little sense, other than as a mapping of psychological archetypes onto an imaginary cosmic drama.

This brings up a significant moral point, which is that one would think that with such a fate in store, unbelievers would merit more compassion than they seem to get in the Quran. Why indulge in so much hatred if their fate is so sure and terrible- if they are building in this world their furnace in the next, by all their immoral deeds, unbelief, and mockery? Again, one gets the distinct sense that the theology is not really all that secure, and that the hatred is a very this-world phenomenon oriented to the oldest trick in the book, convincing people to believe in invisible beings, unbelievable doctrines, and the goodness and success of one's own group, led & ruled by God's representative on earth. All for the most admirable reasons, of course, but in a contemporary world that is so dense with other beliefs, yet at the same time contains a billion and half Muslims typically in communities with no contact with unbelievers at all, such attitudes are unhealthy, to say the least. Muhammed himself practiced precisely what he preached and lived a blood-soaked life, killing his enemies right and left, in Medina (expelling all the Jews along the way), Mecca, and in the larger conquests through the Arabian peninsula up to the end of his life.

Which brings us to jihad. This struggle against unbelief is fundamental to the message of the Quran (indeed, one wonders about some influence from Zoroastrianism, with its relentless black-white outlook) and one question is whether it is formulated in military terms in the text itself, or only in the ancillary Hadith. There are many sections about war, usually focused historically on the early battles of Muhammed which are plainly life or death struggles for the faith. War is definitely the answer, and the pagans are reviled and attacked in the most absolute terms. God expresses himself through the success of his believers in arms.

But the Quran also claims to be a very general text, being the last and final revelation, so its lessons are not simply confined to their historical moment, but apply to all the faithful still today. This makes for a messy theology. The practice of going out hunting for unbelievers to forcibly convert is not explicitly promoted, as far as I could read, despite all the hatred directed at them. Indeed, Muslims are instructed to live in community with each other and to leave areas where they are a minority (i.e. Mecca during the exile in Medina). At the same time, the struggle against unbelief is to be unremitting, so the more explicit directive to military jihad that one finds in the Hadith is very consonant with the Quran in this respect. And of course the historical record of Muhammed's career and the ensuing centuries, when Muslim armies swept the known world, makes the point more eloquently still. Overall, it supports the idea that jihad is properly understood in the original sense, to be a military conquest of unbelievers until the whole world takes up the one true faith.
Be not weary and
Faint-hearted, crying for peace,
When ye should be
Uppermost: for God is
With you, and will never
Put you at a loss
For your (good) deeds.
 (47:35)
The Quran, for instance, promotes terrorization of unbelievers, as though the theology of hell were not already disquieting enough. It also allows polygamy, which, in my opinion, leads inexorably, if indirectly, to war by the excess males of a society. Females captured on battle were, and, if one is to believe reports about ISIS, remain, fair game to jihadists. In Muhammed's day, one can put a somewhat more generous construction on this policy, as a way to provide for widows in a violent, militaristic age. But then his marriage to Aisha (one of his thirteen wives) suggests something quite different ... a Koreshean zeal for a more youthful additional wife.
If ye fear that ye shall not
Be able to deal justly
With the orphans,
Marry women of your choice,
Two, or three, or four;
But if you fear that ye shall not
Be able to deal justly (with them),
Then only one, or (a captive)
That your right hands possess.
That will be more suitable,
To prevent you
From doing injustice.
 (4:3)
Incidentally, married life was not without its problems. In one chapter, he complains about wifely insubordination and threatens to divorce them all:
It may be if he [Muhammed]
Divorced you (all),
That God will give him
In exchange Consorts
Better than you,-
Who submit (their wills),
Who believe, who are devout,
Who turn to God in repentence,
Who worship in (humility),
Who travel (for Fiath) and fast,-
Previously married or virgins.
 (66:5)
But back to the main theme of what to do about unbelievers:
Therefore, when ye meet
The Unbelievers (in fight),
Smite at their necks;
At length, when ye have subdued them,
Bind a bond
Firmly (on them); thereafter
(Is the time for) either
Generosity or ransom:
Until the war lays down
Its burdens. Thus (are ye
Commanded): but if it
had been God's Will,
He could certainly have exacted
Retribution from them (Himself);
But (He lets you fight)
In order to test you,
Some with others.
But those who are slain
In the way of God,-
He will never let
Their deeds be lost.
 (47:4)
There are various mercies and controls put on war against unbelievers, such as the acceptance of conversion on its face, and the directive to not be vindictive in victory, and to attack only in defense, not in offense. But the plastic nature of victimization narratives is such that, as we observe all over world, groups can always construct some way in which they are under attack and thus justify attack. Christians in the US moan constantly how victimized they are by those arrogant atheists, etc. Indeed the insufferable arrogance of the unbelievers is a constant (and rather ironic) theme in the Quran.
Your God is One God:
As to those who believe not
In the Hereafter, their hearts
Refuse to know, and they are arrogant. 
Undoubtedly God doth know
What they conceal,
And what they reveal;
Verily He loveth not the arrogant. 
When it is said to them,
"What is it that your Lord
Has revealed?" they say,
"Tales of the ancients!" 
Let them bear, on the Day
Of Judgement, their own burdens
In full, and also (something)
Of the burdens of those
Without Knowledge, whom they
Misled. Alas, how grievous
The burdens they will bear!
 (41:22-25)
The Quran is an interesting blend of Jewish and Christian theology (Mostly Jewish, however, which accords with Muhammed's principal influences). Muhammed comes off as something of a Paul-like character, reshaping the somewhat foreign theology of Judaism for a new audience, language, and age with forceful, confident, and ceaseless proselytizing. The schizophrenic, two-faced nature of god is extreme, as he is called terrible, awful, and judgemental in the same breath as he is the most merciful. Clearly the audience for this message was intensely tribal, and the transposition of the old family & tent tribalism into a new religious tribalism of believer vs unbeliever was as historically momentous as it was psychologically astute and intellectually vacuous. In our own day, it continues to be the nail upon which multitudes of Muslims, disaffected as they routinely are by their own defective systems of civil society and government, hang their hopes and hatreds.

But there was one enormous oversight in all of Muhammed's hundreds of pages of detailed directives and repetitive trash talk, which was the matter of succession. Muhammed never revealed the identity of, or method of choosing, the next leader, let alone all the successive leaders of the community. This despite the huge significance he placed on the community, its coherence, and its leadership. This failure has haunted Islam from the day of his death, when the wrangles and ultimately civil wars over Ali, Abu Bakr, and Shiism began. The founders of the United States, in contrast, stand head and shoulders over Muhammed in that they authored a durable mechanism of peaceful succession and of government in general. A beneficent god could surely have managed as much for Muslims.
"The Kharijites argued a true believer would have trusted his fate not to diplomacy but to ongoing warfare and God will decide." .. from a Western commentary.

Unfortunately, Islam has vacillated between legitimacy by blood and legitimacy by battle, per the most ancient template. It is incidentally odd that the theocratic model we find in Iran has been so rarely employed, in light of Muhammed's example. In any case, this continues to be a glaring weakness of the Muslim world and especially of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Taliban, and other fringe groups that send up fatwas and set up caliphates that get nothing but scorn from mainstream Muslims (unless they succeed ... nothing succeeds like success!). The charisma of the moment, yoked to fanaticism, fundamentalism, and terror, may be able to scatter a dysfunctional and totally corrupt government as found in Iraq or Syria, but its staying power against well-functioning, legitimate, (not to mention open, truth-seeking, and democratic) societies is going to be extremely modest.
They will recline on Carpets,
Whose rich inner linings
Will be of rich brocade: the Fruit
Of the Gardens will be
Near (and easy of reach). 
Then which of the favors
Of your lord will ye deny? 
In them will be (Maidens),
Chaste, restraining their glances,
Whom no man or Jinn
Before them has touched; 
Then which of the favors
Of your Lord will ye deny?
 (55:54-57)
In the end, we have to ask how much Islam per se is responsible for the features of the Muslim world that keeps it in the news on such a regular basis. Many argue that religion has no significant effect, for it can and is interpreted quite flexibly depending on the material circumstances of the society. We would have to look to our own actions from the Crusades, colonialism, and recent US foreign policy to locate the reasons why some Muslims are so bitter about modernity and ready to take up arms anywhere they can fight infidels or set up fly-by-night caliphates.

Obviously, there is some truth to that view. The spectrum of Islamic interpretation is vast, from the Sufis to the Salafists. The Quran supports numerous views, and offers some compassion in amongst the rest. But I think that ideology is also critically important. We do not absolve the Nazis by accusing the Versailles treaty of driving Germans to  world war and genocide. Ideology drives world affairs, as the narrative force that shapes our responses to material conditions. No ideology, no Inquisition, no cold war, no racism in the US, no Crusades, no "holy land", no patriarchy, etc. ad infinitum. As the Quran exemplifies, people will find ideologies to suit them, (or have them forced down their throats), but if those ideologies claim to be rational, yet are not rational, the seeds of their own critique, if not destruction, can be sown. At least one can hope.
Fighting is prescribed
For you, and ye dislike it.
But it is possible
That ye dislike a thing
Which is good for you,
and that ye love a thing
Which is bad for you.
But God knoweth
And ye know not.
 (2:216)
For instance, one of the momentous issues in Islamic ideology is its stance towards the modern world. Which is not easily compatible with traditional Islam. Globalism breaks down cultural borders, infecting everyone with consumerism, liberal political philosophies, women's liberation, and religious skepticism. The commerce and especially the oil-addiction of modernity has made some Muslim nations unimaginably wealthy, while more generally, the advent of colonialism, interacting with the technological and intellectual power of the West, has put Islamic culture in a poor, embattled, even subservient, position. The Egyptian philosopher Qutb came to a shocked and fundamentalist conclusion- that modernity is the mortal enemy of Islam. Quran and Sharia must be the sole answer to all of mankind's problems.
"The concept of the imperceptible is a decisive factor in distinguishing man from animal. Materialist thinking, ancient as well as modern, has tended to drag man back to an irrational existence, with no room for the spiritual, where everything is determined by sensory means alone. What is peddled as 'progressive thought' is no more than dismal regression."
Let not the Unbelievers
Think that they can
Get the better (of the godly):
They will never frustrate (them). 
Against them make ready
Your strength to the utmost
Of your power, including
Steeds of war, to strike terror
Into (the hearts of) the enemies,
Of God and your enemies,
And others besides, whom
Ye may not know, but whom
God doth know. Whatever
Ye shall spend on the Cause
Of God, shall be repaid
Unto you, and ye shall not
Be treated  unjustly.
 (8:59-60)
The Saudi rulers in particular have blended this ideology with their wealth and Wahhabist religious structure into a globe-straddling ideological machinery of fundamentalist madrassas that groom the cannon fodder of jihad. Yet Attaturk, a generation before, came to the opposite conclusion, frog-marching Turkey into a quasi-secular, modernizing state. What is it to be? A great deal depends on the fairness and decency the rest of the world can bring to the table. But more depends on the readings that Muslims give themselves of their central text, history and traditions. The war for the ideological / theological soul of the Muslim world is highly consequential. And the core text is not, on the face of it, particularly helpful towards a tolerant, cosmopolitan, and peaceful reading.
It may be that God
Will grant love (and friendship)
Between you and those whom
Ye (now) hold as enemies.
For God has power
(Over all things); And God is
Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. 
God forbids you not,
With regard to those who Fight you not for (your) Faith
Nor drive you out
Of your homes,
From dealing kindly and justly
With them: For God loveth
Those who are just.
 (60:7-8)


  • An Islamic theologian on the value of theology and the fundamentalist turn. "Islamic theology is based on an ethical rather than speculative imperative. Many Qur’anic verses and hadiths show that iman or “true faith” is obligatory and rewarded by paradise, and that kufr or “unbelief” is wrong and punished by hell." This shows, unsurprisingly, that a search for truth is not really part of the program.
  • An advanced discussion of ISIS and the Muslim world, on POI.
  • Shiite cleric sentenced to crucifixion in Saudi Arabia.
  • Christianity ... can be taken several ways as well.
  • Maher on Islam. And more, more, more, more, more.
  • What do regular Muslims think?
  • Is the Quran an example of "derp"?
  • And now some very peaceful news, from Indonesia.
  • The unending irony that is Pakistan: "An anonymous senior Pakistani security official stated: 'It is a worrying development that the TTP is regrouping close to the border right under the nose of the Afghan security forces.'"
  • Wesley Clark on policy: "We just can’t believe that we were responsible for creating it. We weren’t. The money that went into ISIS came from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and it came particularly from the work of the Saudi leadership trying to find an opposition to Bashar Assad in Syria."
  • Fear is a political act, and a media goldmine.
  • Gosh- what happened to the middle class?
  • GOP heads to new lows. Suppression or outreach, that is the question.
  • What is the nature of our current form of capitalism? And of our political economy?
  • And what's the problem with Europe? "The Eurozone’s current problem arises because one country - Germany - allowed nominal wage growth well below the Eurozone average, which undercut everyone else.... Within a currency union, this is a beggar my neighbour policy."
  • Krugman on Japan- now is no time for false fiscal responsibility.
  • Notes and data on inequality.
  • The Fed can set long as well as short rates.
  • Economic graph of the week. Our economic prospects continue to decline.

No comments:

Post a Comment