Today’s post exemplifies the problem with how many people approach Islam today.  As I read through today’s section I was struck with the reminders of Allah’s mercy: “God is most forgiving and merciful: (2:199, 218); five encouragements to be “mindful of God” (one of my new favorite terms); stunning phraseology: “There is also a kind man who gives his life away to please God” (2:207); lessons that are easy to apply to humanity regardless of religion: “You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something although it is bad for you” (2:216); and the deep wisdom and guidance to be found in this significant religion: “The life of this world is made to seem glorious to the disbelievers, and they laugh at those who believe” (2:212). 

Then towards the end of today’s reading, I came to this:

Fighting has been ordained for you, though it is hard for you. . . . They ask you [Prophet] about fighting in the sacred month.  Say, “Fighting in that month is a great offence, but to bar others from God’s path, to disbelieve in Him, prevent access to the Sacred Mosque, and expel its people, are still greater offences in God’s eyes: persecution is worse than killing.”  They will not stop fighting you [believers] until they make you revoke your faith, if they can. (2:216-17)

Passages like this grab your attention and make you forget all the rest. (Interestingly, Saturday’s post about the first violence passage I have come upon received 4x more hits than my average posts!)  And when we forget the rest, it becomes easy to respond with a knee-jerk and depict the entire religion as centered around violence.    I have been reading for two weeks now and I have only come upon two passages I would say really advocate violence, and in both cases it is fighting in self-defense.  You may say that is two too many.  Maybe so.  But it is a very small percentage.  Islam is about so much more than violence and to ignore that is irresponsible. 

Still, to honestly read the Qur’an we must tarry at least for a few minutes on the two ayahs quoted above, if for no other reason because people concerned with Islam do.  Is this passage advocating violence?  Absolutely, if you are among the first Muslims who were being oppressed and kept from worshiping in Mecca, a foundational part of nascent Islam.  Did they themselves want to fight?  No, it was “hard” for them to do this.  Did Allah rejoice in this fighting?  Not at all; it was considered the lesser of two evils.  Could fighting have been avoided in this circumstance?  It does not seem so.  The polytheists of Mecca had one goal: stamp out Islam and purge either this religion from the hearts of the Muslims or purge the Muslims.  The bottomline principle was that is this persecution was a greater offence than the killing that would ensue, so do what must be done.  Again, this is not exactly the blood-thirsty jihad depicted by some critics of Islam. 

I would like us to bear a certain reality in mind.  This passage and the one in 2:191-94 come at the birth of a new religion, a new cultural and spiritual movement.  History is filled with many examples of violence done at the beginning of a movement (that is not an endorsement, but an observation).  It is almost as if that is the norm, and logically so.  People do not greet change peacefully.  People do not usually surrender control willfully.  People fight to hang on to what is theirs or what they believe is right.  People are also quite willing to fight, kill, and die for some ideal.  If Islam came into this world with fighting and violence, it was certainly not alone.  Consider the American, French, and Bolshevik Revolutions.  Or the American South’s bloody attempt at succession from the Union.  How many deaths were necessary to oust Saddam Hussein?  How many more will be needed to bring true democracy to Iraq?  Or go way back to the uncomfortable chapters of Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Judges as the Israelites shed much blood conquering Canaan and making it their own.  So is it surprising to find violence in the story of Islam’s beginnings?  Not at all.  We must bear in mind that this is not a character trait (or flaw) unique to Islam.    

The religious movement that does stand out in this history of bloody struggle is not Islam.  It is the way of Christ (which we know from history has not been synonymous with Christianity).  The Jesus Movement was once a burgeoning movement as well.  The disciples of Jesus were certainly sent out as part of a revolution.  Very quickly, the “sect of the Nazarene” (Acts 24:5) met bitter persecution as well, even to the point of death.  They too were kept from worshiping how and where they wished, and were scattered away from the city that was their center of gravity.  And into that situation, Jesus and his followers said this:

10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. (Matthew 5:10-11)

39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. (Matthew 5:39)

44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:44-45)

14 If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. . . . 23 When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. (Matthew 10:14, 23)

28 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)

51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.  52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:51-52)

 14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. . . . 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. 18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. . . . 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14, 17-18, 21)

10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer.  I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days.  Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown. (Revelation 2:10)

And the first followers of Jesus did exactly that: they repaid good for evil, refusing to fight back, often dying because of it.  Now that is a religion that stands out.  That is a group to take notice of as unique.

One last thing: today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  MLK is a personal hero, and this is Memphis, sadly the place where he was assassinated.  The spirit and words of King loom large today.  King and the many souls who braved fire hoses, police dogs, beat-downs by drunken bigots, molotov cocktails thrown into their houses, imprisonment, and even lynchings brought decisive, long-lasting change to America.  They started a cultural revolution, the Civil Rights Movement.  But King’s rhetoric and strategies were so different from how so many revolutionaries — social and religious — operate.  Instead of violence they resisted non-violently.  Instead of fighting back they took the worst others could give them and rose above it.  They allowed love, light, and justice to breakdown the dark hatred of injustice.  They went the way of Jesus and said essentially “fighting back is worse than persecution.”  And America changed.  It truly did.  Violence does not have to be the only way.   

On this holiday, please take a few more minutes today to read these quotes from Dr. King:

At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.

Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon. which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals.

If physical death is the price that I must pay to free my white brothers and sisters from a permanent death of the spirit, then nothing can be more redemptive.

Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.