Why would someone do this?

Why would a young man with his whole life in front of him join a group to fly a hijacked plane into a building  ensuring his death?

Why would a young wife strap explosives under her burqa and blow herself up in a crowded railway station? 

There are many contributing factors that would cause such extreme behavior, most of which are not religious.  In the hands of one who wants to use Islam to advance an agenda of power, today’s passage could certainly be used to produce people who would be willing to die for Allah. 

Believers, why, when it is said to you, “Go and fight in God’s cause,” do you feel weighed down to the ground?  Do you prefer this world to the life to come?  How small the enjoyment of this world is, compared with the life to come!  If you do not go out and fight, God will punish you severely and put others in your place. . . . So go out, no matter whether you are lightly or heavily armed, and struggle in God’s way. . . . Those who have faith in God and the Last Day do not ask you [Muhammad] for exemption from struggle . . . only those who do not have faith in God and the Last Day ask your permission to stay home. . . . They are already in trouble: Hell will engulf the disbelievers (9:38-39, 41, 44-45, 49).

Remember that the context of this surah (like the last one; some think these two surahs were actually originally one that became separated) is closely connected to battle.  War is sometimes called a necessary evil.  Most people don’t want there to be war, but if there must be one those who willingly risk the sacrifice of life for their nation are considered heroes.  Still, why would one happily go off to battle, in the way that is described in the passage above?

According to today’s passage, one who is called to war and sees it as a curse, death sentence, or punishment is to be shamed.  Such a response reveals a lack of true faith.  God has championed his people in the worst of situations, so there is no need for fear.  It also shows one is more attached to this fleeting life than to the life that is to come.  True believers give up anything in service to God.  There are much better rewards coming.  Last, true believers see struggles for the faith as a win-win situation: “Do you expect something other than one of the two best things to happen to us?” (9:52).  Either God will bring victory or He will reward the slain warrior in the next life.  That is the best perspective to have when called to fight for the faith. 

I guess I can understand the thinking.  But I can’t help but think passages like these are dangerous.  Placed in the wrong hands.  Placed before impressionable minds.  They make me uncomfortable. 

How about you?

We start a new surah again today — named “Repentance,” a Medinan surah — and by the fifth ayah we are back into a sticky situation:

When the [four] forbidden months are over, wherever you encounter the idolaters, kill them, seize them, beseige them, wait for them at every lookout post. (9:5a)

Again, this is an oft-quoted passage supposedly exemplifying Muslim barbarism.  In today’s passage we also come to these admonitions:

Fight these leaders of disbelief — oaths mean nothing to them — so that they may stop. (9:12)

Fight them: God will punish them at your hands, He will disgrace them, He will help you to conquer them. (9:14)

How can you claim Islam is a religion of peace when you have commands like these in your sacred book?  Or so goes the accusation.

I have only one desire: to simply listen to the text and let it speak for itself.  Context is most important at this point.  When you read this passage as a whole, here is what we see:

  • This is stated within the broader context of relating to idolatrous neighbors of the first Muslims with whom the Muslims had a treaty.  Commentator Ali says the pagan neighbors of the first Muslim were well-known for making treaties with the Muslims only to break these later when it was expedient.  This is a time-bound context; once again, this is not a for-all-time command for how to relate to all non-Muslims (see this past post  and this one for discussion of similar passages).   
  • The idolaters are encouraged to repent and given time to do so before any kind of punitive action is taken (9:3).  Four months was a time of notice the Muslims gave the pagans to make amends. 
  • God is “forgiving and merciful” so the Muslims should be as well as much as is possible (9:5, 11).
  • They are to extend protection before punishment, with the hope that such compassion will cause the idolater to turn to God (9:6).
  • They are only to fight the disbeliever who is actively rejecting the words of Allah and keeping others from worshiping  Him (9:9).
  • In this context, it was the idolaters who were the aggressors, not the Muslims (9:10, 13).  The idolaters proved untrustworthy where treaties were concerned and therefore were a threat (9:11).  This fighting was responsive and defensive. 
  • The Muslims were to be instruments of divine punishment, not people with a political agenda or opportunistic (9:14). 

Just by broadening our focus we can understand the original meaning of 9:5 much better.  Those who turn this into a command for holy war against all non-Muslims in any place and at any time, especially when no antagonism has taken place — whether those people are Muslim clerics with political agendas or non-Muslim fearmongers, often with political agendas as well — is to misunderstand this passage, it would seem. 

What do you think? 

I am a bit of a “Lost” fan.  Not as much as some who read this blog, but the summer my wife and I watched the first four seasons all at once was a fun one.  I was always impressed with the depth of the show and the religious themes and imagery that wove their way through this immensely popular television show.  For whatever reason, the “Others” theme was especially intriguing.  If you are not familiar with the storyline at all (no spoilers, don’t worry), the series started with a plane bound from Australia to America going down just offshore of a mysterious, uncharted island.  Total strangers are brought together as one, especially once they realize they are not alone on the island.  Simply put, anyone on the island who was not from the plane is branded an “Other.”  The question that floats in the tropical air of the show — and its the same question we ask ourselves in so many different situations — is how should they relate to the “Others?”  Are they to be trusted, feared, or killed?  It takes a couple of seasons but slowly we realize there are some “Others” that should be feared and some that could become allies.

The same question faces the early Muslims in today’s section, except the “Others” are called “hypocrites” (4:88).  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali asserts that these are the Muslims who deserted their brothers during the fateful Battle of Uhud.  It would appear they are no longer part of the Muslims, so how should they be treated? 

God lays out three different responses that could be given based upon how the “hypocrites” present themselves: 

  1. Take them back as allies if they are willing to migrate (hijra) back to Medina and live with the Muslims as brothers again.
  2. Leave them alone if they have fled to people with whom the Muslims have treaties.  These people will keep them in line. 
  3. But if they should “turn on you in aggression” and try to oppose you, feel free to kill them.  They are a true threat to the entire community. 

In the middle of this discussion we come upon another often-quoted ayah, usually with no regard for context:

Seize and kill them wherever you encounter them. (4:89, 91)

Let’s pay attention to the context.  This is once again a situation-specific direction given about a particular people who were a threat to the first Muslims.  Again, this is a case of self-defense.  Additionally, killing is only the last resort if more amenable options are not possible.  (See this post on a similar passage.) 

Still, it’s there.  Twice.  Maybe it is deemed a necessary evil.  Better safe than sorry.  A political expediency.  A “hypocrite” could easily avoid possible death by moving to Medina if money allowed (4:97-100).  And the very next paragraph is crystal clear that Muslims are not to kill other Muslims — a death penalty is placed on premeditated murder (4:92-93). 

Nonetheless, all this killing business remains prickly, in my mind.

When I travel places, I try very hard to avoid caravanning with other drivers.  I hardly like to follow people through town.  Give me a destination and I’ll met you there.  Why?  I am not going to like the way you drive, the speed you drive, the lane you drive in, how you ride the brake or wait until the last minute to brake, whatever.  I want to go my way, my speed, and the way I am used to driving.  I want my way.

Whether you are in a car or under someone’s leadership, following someone is hard.  Pretty soon we will doubt your judgment or competence.  You will say something we don’t like.  You will ask for something we are not ready to give.  I will have to surrender my way and, well, I don’t like that.

In today’s section it seems Muhammad is dealing with people who feel exactly the way I often do.  This is Muhammad, the Prophet of God, the Messenger.  He has been chosen by God to lead.  But this is also the same Muhammad with whom you grew up, with whom you use to trade, whose mother was a cousin to a cousin of yours.  Muhammad is just a human, right?  How do we know for sure we can trust him?  How do we know for sure that God really said that we needed to fight these people?  People make mistakes and maybe this risky situation Muhammad wants us to go walking into is one.  Why should we follow Muhammad?

I think Jesus knew something about this too (Mark 6:1-6).

The context of this section is battle, likely against the Meccans.  There are among the Muslims people who claim to be wholeheartedly devoted to God but then look for ways to avoid their duty to fight.  They drag their feet and show up late for battle (4:72).  They assume that if they avoid a defeat by dragging their feet that this was a reward from God.  They blame Muhammad for their misfortune (4:78).  God calls them hypocrites, people who want the glory and benefit of battle, who want to play the part of warrior but who are not actually willing to sacrifice for the cause.  God has little patience for them.  Where is their faith?  Do they really think they can avoid death anyway if it is their time (4:78)?  Do they not realize that if they are faithful there are only two outcomes to battle: victory or death (4:74)?  They will not be defeated.

Still, this is hard, and it is a wh0le lot easier to blame Muhammad for misfortune and go their own way at their own pace, conveniently missing anything that would actually demand a sacrifice of will.

Let those of you who are willing to trade the life of this world for the life to come, fight in God’s way.  To anyone who fights in God’s way, whether killed or victorious, We shall give a great reward. (4:74)

Can this passage be used to encourage Muslims to lay their lives down for Allah in exchange for an eternal reward?  Definitely.  Might this even get into the mind of an extremist and make the sacrifice of self in a crowded Moscow subway station or airport or on a plane bound for Detroit easier to do?  Probably so.  Notice, though, the context:

Why should you not fight in God’s cause and for those oppressed men, women, and children who cry out, “Lord, rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors!  By your grace, give us a protector and give us a helper!” (4:75)

These warriors were to fight in defense of the oppressed.  Commentator Abdullah Yusuf Ali opines that this is likely referring to the few persecuted Muslims still left in Mecca after the migration (hijra) to Medina.  As the Muslims wage war with the Meccans and slowly take Mecca for the Muslims, they are only defending and avenging the oppressed.  They are God’s answer to the cry for help in ayah 75.

Could Hezbollah import these verses into the strife in Palestine?  Maybe so.  But to use it to validate terrorist bombings in Moscow in support for Chechen independence or flying planes into American office buildings?  Seems like a stretch.

Moscow Subway Station bombed in 2010 by Chechen Rebels

Is killing necessary?  Martin Luther King would have said no.  But the vast majority of the world says yes, including Islam and, for that matter, America whose response to terrorism was to wage war.

In today’s passage we return to the topic of fighting back.  (I promise I am only going where the Qur’an takes me each day.)  The main point made in this section is that the first Muslims, though they may be afraid, are to willingly fight for their rights to worship in Mecca.  God has commanded it and God gives, controls and takes back life (“God has power over everything,” 2:259).  Do not be like the ancient Jews who so often shrunk back from conflict (for instance the lack of faith Saul/Talut and his men showed when facing Goliath and the Philistines).  Instead, be like David and please God.  But they must choose whether to obey in this matter or not because, as 2:256 says, “there is no compulsion in religion” (which really calls into question the belief that Muslims are out to convert people at the point of a sword or barrel of a gun).

In the middle of today’s reading we are given a valuable glimpse into the Qur’an’s rationale for violence:

If God did not drive some back by means of others the world would be completely corrupt. (2:251)

The Muslims are cleansing agents.  The Muslims fight back in order to stem the tide of corruption and evil in this world.  The spread of Islam will cause the spread of God’s will, so if it takes fighting back against those who wish to stop the advance of this new kingdom of God to cause Islam to spread then that fighting will be justifiable.  So goes the logic.  The violence that ensues, then, is not politically, ethnically, socially or even emotionally driven; it is a spiritual act of “kingdom-making,” bloody though it may be.

There are a few passages in the Christian Bible that just make me uncomfortable.  Maybe I don’t understand them well enough.  When the topic of violence done in God’s name comes up, it is easy for me to point to Jesus, whose life and teachings exemplify non-violence.  However, there is still the God who sent his people into Canaan with an agenda of exclusion and even genocide.  There is the God who said kill all of the Amalekites — all of them, women, children even the livestock.  I simply can’t do the illogical write-off of the Old Testament God as somehow different from the New Testament God.  That didn’t fly 1700 years ago with Marcion and shouldn’t today.  God is God; he does not change.  And that God is the God I worship and love, though I don’t fully understand Him nor do I expect to.    So I look at what I am reading in the Qur’an and I have this nagging reminder that there are some equally offensive passages in my Bible.  And with the Qur’anic verse I quoted above, I see some commonality in the rationale for bloodshed.

There is a backstory to the conquest of Canaan we often forget.  Genesis 15:16 says the “measure of [the Canaanite’s] sin is now full.”  The conquest of the Canaanites is not ethnic cleansing, as if God doesn’t like Canaanites.  If it were God would have given the Jews Canaan without condition because of their superior ethnicity.  Instead a condition is put on Israel that if they become as depraved as the Canaanites they too will be savaged and exiled from the land, which of course did happen by way of the Exile (see Deuteronomy 4:25-27 for the conditionality of the land promise).  This is the natural unfolding of justice in a world where all truly are free yet accountable to God for their choices.  The conquest of Canaan will be a re-creation in which God re-orders the sinful disorder caused by pagan depravity.  This is what “kingdom coming” (Matthew 6:10) looks like in the real world where people are free to rebel against God and continue to do so to such a degree that death is the only end to the madness.  Pretty?  Comfortable?  Easy to stomach?  No!  Necessary?  Do we want to live a world more like hell or heaven?

While God hasn’t changed, he has decided to work through the love ethic of Jesus Christ for a time — a long time (see Monday’s post).  But let us remember that even the meek, pacific Jesus will come again bearing a sword to do battle against evil, death, and sin in the world and in the human heart in order to re-create God’s Kingdom of love, purity and justice in the world (Revelation 19:11-21).

Gandalf leads the charge at Helm's Deep (Tolkien's depiction of "kingdom-coming" in The Lord of the Rings)

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.

Kill them wherever you encounter them. (2:191)

Even if you have never open the Qur’an before, I would bet you’ve heard that line before.  Type it into Google and you end up with almost 4000 hits, many coming from the blogosphere where people quote only those six words from this passage (and sometimes a handful of other passages similarly taken out of context; we will deal with them as we come to them) to support their depiction of Islam as a hate-driven, homicidal religion of terrorists.  The belief is that jihad is the norm and that any and all Muslims are responsible for 9/11, the wars in which we are presently mired, the delays in our airports, ethnic friction in Europe, the fear we live with each day — well everything short of global warming!

But would we want people to come along and rip six words from the Bible and build an entire characterization around them?  How about these six, well, eight verses:

You must purge the evil from among you. (Deuteronomy 17:7)

I think it is so important that we treat this Qur’anic passage correctly that I am narrowing my focus to only six ayahs and reprinting them all here from Abdel Haleem’s translation:

Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.  Kill them wherever you encounter them, and drive them out from where they drove you out, for persecution is more serious than killing.  Do not fight them at the Sacred Mosque unless they fight you there.  If they do fight you, kill them — this is what such disbelievers deserve — but if they stop, then God is most forgiving and merciful.  Fight them until there is no more persecution, and worship is devoted to God.  If they cease hostilities, there can be no [further] hostility, except towards aggressors.  A sacred month for a sacred month: violation of sanctity [calls for]  fair retribution.  So if anyone commits aggression against you, attack him as he attacked you, but be mindful of God, and know that he is with those who are mindful of Him.  Spend in God’s cause: do not contribute to your destruction with your own hands, but do good, for God loves those who do good.  (2:190-195)

Let’s only try today to hear what this passage actually says. 

We know from Islamic tradition and the direct context that this concerns the unprovoked persecution that the Muslims were experiencing when they went to the “Sacred Mosque” or Ka’ba in Mecca to worship.  That is the first thing to notice: the “them” is specific and time-bound — the polytheists of Mecca who had caused the Muslims to migrate to Medina and who rejected the teachings of Muhammad.  It is totally irresponsible — whether you are a militant Muslim extremist or a conservative talk show host — to apply this to Jews or Christians past or present or to Americans or anyone else living today. 

Second, it is crystal clear that these words — undeniably harsh and prickly — are spoken in the context of self-defense.  The Muslims were being “driven out.”  They were only to fight aggressors who started the hostilities.  People pushing paper in office buildings and riding on commuter trains and living in quiet neighborhoods should never be targets for hostility, when the Qur’an is understood correctly even by its own devotees.     

Third, there are limits to how far one should go in exacting retribution even against aggressors.  Keep it out of the Sacred Mosque to whatever degree it is up to you.  If an aggressor relents, stop fighting in return.  In the most astounding part of this passage, the Muslim is even taught to model the mercy of Allah to one who turns from his persecution. 

Fourth, there was a goal for the fighting: worship.  The Muslims were being barred from worshiping in the Ka’ba, thus their religion was being persecuted.  The goal was to be able to freely worship again.  These ancient Muslims were not savages who indiscriminately killed. 

Fifth, there is a time for fighting back, even to the point of killing.  Better to stand up for the freedom to worship Allah than to remain a subjugated people whose praise is silenced. 

Bottomline, if we think the presence of this passage in the Qur’an means every Muslim looks with disdain upon people who are not like them plotting either to convert or kill, then we probably ought to read this passage again.  Are there some Muslims who use passages like this one to support their hate, for sure.  Just as there are non-Muslims who use this same passage to validate their own hatred of Muslims.  But maybe if we started seeing things differently, others might in return.