As I’ve written on several previous occasions, there exists a sect of reformist Muslims who believe that the Koran has been grievously misread by cavilers and doubters who are convinced that Islam is not a religion of peace, but a violent and imperialistic faith intent on world conquest. The passages in the Koran—and the environing literature as well—that give rise to the animosity of nit-pickers and quibblers, the enlightened Muslims claim, require to be re-interpreted so that their temperate and merciful essence can be made plain to all. Embarking on the process of re-interpretation can be a salutary and liberating task, one that we spurn at the peril of darkest ignorance and counter-productive rancor. Eventually the detractors of Islam may realize that they have failed to grasp the beauty, elegance and rhetoric of conciliation that animate the holy texts and be moved to make amends for their anti-Islamic vitriol and stubborn recidivism.
To consider only a few salient instances of controversial passages that have been consistently misapprehended.
Koran 2:191, speaking of infidels who do not accept the word of the Prophet, commands us to “kill them wherever you may find them.” Here we must be particularly alert, subtle and astute, for killing the unbelievers does not mean to slay them bodily, but to kill them with kindness, in other words, to shower the candy of life upon them, to reward them with prestigious appointments and lavish emoluments, to bow before them in the streets and welcome them into the homes of the devout, to address them with profound respect, to decorate them with titles and ply them with accolades—until, bedazzled by the nobility and magnanimity of Islam, they are ready to convert.
Similarly, in Koran 2:216, where we read that “fighting is prescribed” for the faithful, we are to understand that the battle is enjoined to vanquish the evil impulse in Muslim and non-Muslim alike, until universal harmony and jubilation dominate the world. This is the true meaning and purpose of the Caliphate.
When Allah warns in Koran 3:56, with regard to those who reject the faith, “I will punish them with terrible agony,” the supreme Lord does not propose insupportable physical torment but, rather, the moral suffering that comes from the recognition of apostasy or denial, which can only strengthen the fibre of a mortified conscience.
Koran 5:33 informs us that “The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement.” Admittedly, this is hard verse to fathom; however, as is often the Prophet’s wont, he is not targeting body parts but engaging in graphic allegory to impress upon both believers and unbelievers the self-torture they will feel, smitten by their higher selves, should they curse the Almighty.
In the same way, Koran 8:12, which reads: “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them,” is not meant to be taken literally. The true meaning is: browbeat them tactfully and lightly slap their wrists if they persist in their folly and continue to rebuff your acts of philanthropic munificence. This is the Islamic version of tough love.
Koran 18:65-81 is often taken to condone honor killing, since what appears to be the senseless murder of a young man is only meant to spare his parents the trauma of his imminent misdeeds and to prepare the way for a successor. Of course, one knows that killing is frowned upon in Muslim culture, and this apparent killing of the young man is nothing but the symbolic correlate of expunging his “disobedience” and mischief-making and replacing his wayward sensibility with contrition and the promise of rehabilitation.
Koran 47:35 adjures: “Be not weary and faint-hearted, crying for peace, when you should have the upper hand, for Allah is with you.” The “upper hand” (Arabic: shakir) refers not to arrogant predominance or to the hand the strikes downward from the crown to the jaw, cleaving the skull in two, but to the hand that is raised heavenward in prayer. Nor should the Muslim “cry for peace,” that is, for relaxation or diversion or couch-potatohood, but should be above all triviality in his desire to know the peace of exaltation. Genuine peace can only be found in the bosom of God
The same procedure leading to the extraction of authentic purport applies, for example, to the Hadith (sayings and acts ascribed to Mohammed). For example:
When, in Bukhari 11:626, Mohammed discloses that “I decided to order a man to lead the prayer and then take a flame to burn all those who had not left their houses for the prayer, burning them alive inside their homes,” he does not envision the burning of the flesh but the inward fire of self-contempt that slackers and tergiversators will eventually experience. The pain of remorse can indeed be searing.
In Bukhari 52:177, we read that “the Hour [of Resurrection] will not be established until you fight with the Jews.” This admonition obviously has nothing to do with anti-Semitism; the idea is to engage in playful sparring and amiable argumentation with Jews in order to reveal the high spirits, good humor and self-deprecating modesty of Islam, thus impressing the initially skeptical Jews with the genial nature and friendly feelings inherent in the faith.
Analogously, when we find in Ibn Ishaq/Hisham 9:90 the divine behest that “A prophet must slaughter before collecting captives,” neither the term “slaughter” nor “captives” connotes anything malevolent or untoward. “Slaughter” refers to animal sacrifice in homage to the deity; “captives” alludes not to slavery, an abomination which critics of Islam unfairly accuse it of practicing even to this day, but to the human heart binding itself in the golden chains of celestial beatitude.
Thus, when Mohammed, in Tabari 9:69, is reported as saying that “Killing unbelievers is a small matter to us,” we come to understand that this is among the most pacific of passages in the Hadith. By “unbelievers,” Mohammed is once again drawing attention to animal sacrifice on the altar of devotion, for animals do not believe or worship. And by “a small matter,” Mohammed, a master ironist, is merely being facetious. The “small matter” is clearly of gravest importance, the carrying out of certain ritual decrees regarding the treatment of animals, which today justify the custom of halal cuisine.
Again, those who are strangers to nuance will misconstrue a text like Muslim 19: 4294, in which we are told that “When the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) appointed anyone as leader of an army or detachment he would especially exhort him [to] make a holy war.” A reset is needed if we are to grasp the Prophet’s tenor, for by prosecuting holy war, we are to understand righteous preaching for the benefit of the human soul. No one is to get hurt for Islam is the religion of peace, amity and concord.
I have isolated merely a sparse handful of the myriad comparable passages and tropes that proliferate throughout the Islamic canon. The same habit of re-interpretation—which is actually proper interpretation—of the scriptures is the sine qua non for reading and understanding the traditional texts of Islam. Indeed, every venomous, inflammatory or disturbingly ambiguous passage in the entire range of Islamic writings, counsels, messages and prescriptions, when placed in the appropriate light, can be seen to denote the opposite. We are all dhimmis, second class beings, compared to the Creator. We must all pay the jizzya, or tribute tax, of genuine worship to the Lord of the Universe. We discover our freedom in “perfect slavery” (a term popularized by the medieval Islamic scholars al-Qushayri and Ibn Arabi) to the dictates of an enlightened conscience and ethical behavior. Life is a blessing and a miracle, which the Sharia, by ordering our activities down to the minutest details, confirms and extols—Sharia may look like totalitarian compulsion but it is really perfect love. “Submission” is the triumphal assertion of the sanctified will, that is, submission to our best selves, aka our Islamic selves. Beheading (“smiting of the neck”) is only a metaphor for changing one’s mind about first and last things. And so on.
It is only the literalists, the barbarians, the uneducated, and the unevolved among Muslims who will act in defiance of their sacred texts, even if they happen to constitute a majority. They are patently unable to process what any sensitive and informed person among the ummah—or for that matter, among Jews, Christians and secular Westerners—recognizes immediately: the Koran and its outriders are not what they appear to be to primitive, malicious and uninstructed minds. What seems opaque or problematic becomes instantly transparent to an agile and sympathetic intelligence. For there is no violence or niggardliness in Islam, only light, majesty and infinite tolerance for suffering mankind. This is the charm of the initially paradoxical passage in Koran 5:54: “O believers, take not Jews and Christians as friends; they are friends of each other. Those of you who make them his friends is one of them. God does not guide an unjust people.” By which Mohammed means that one should embrace the foreigner not simply as a friend but as a more-than-friend, a brother, a soul mate, in short, as one cherishes one’s own spirit. Otherwise, one will be in dire want of divine guidance.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the school of Muslim thinkers, editors and redactors without whom we would remain trapped in a tangle of misconceptions respecting the religion of peace.
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