The Islamic State (ISIS) have been in the news a lot recently as a result of a series of barbaric atrocities committed in the name of Islam. The question that the western media has been, for the most part, very reluctant to address openly is, “How representative is ISIS of the Islamic ideology?” It is the elephant in the room. Note that I am not asking “How representative is ISIS of Muslims?” Indeed, thankfully, the vast majority of Muslims in the west do not want to kill you. The majority of Muslims I have encountered in the UK have been very pleasant individuals, and I have enjoyed many a cordial debate with British Muslims. I think we should, nonetheless, be free to ask questions that many may find to be uncomfortable. Members of ISIS claim to be following the teachings of Islam as laid out in the Qur’an and by the prophet Muhammad as reported by the Hadith traditions. Peaceful Muslims in the west claim that ISIS have hijacked and greatly perverted an ideology that at its core promotes peace and tolerance. So who has correctly interpreted the teachings of Islam? Over the course of this and a series of subsequent articles, I seek to fairly evaluate this question.
War and Peace According to the Qur’an
For someone reading the Qur’an for the first time, it might be somewhat puzzling that there are texts that promote peace and tolerance, as well as those that promote violence and subjugation. In other words, the Qur’an seems to be giving mixed messages. For example, while on the one hand Surah Al-Baqara (2):256 assures us that “There is no compulsion in Faith”, Surah Al-Tawba (9):29 commands Muslims to “Fight those People of the Book who do not believe in Allah, nor in the last day…until they pay jizyah with their own hands while they are subdued.” To understand how to fit those seemingly conflicting ideas into a single consistent framework, one has to understand a little about Qur’anic hermeneutics.
According to Islamic theology, where there is conflict in an item of doctrine taught by different chapters of the Qur’an, the chapter that was revealed later abrogates the chapter that was revealed earlier. This is known as the doctrine of abrogation, and finds its support in Surah Al-Baqara (2):106 (“Whenever We abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or one equal to it”) and Surah An-Nahl (16):101 (“Whenever We replace a verse with another verse — and Allah knows well what He reveals — they say, “You are but a forger.” The fact rather is that most of them are ignorant”). This approach to interpreting the Qur’an was pioneered by Muhammad himself and adopted by the early Muslim generations. It can even be found in the works of the great early commentators on the Qur’an. For example, the medieval commentator on the Qur’an, Ismail ibn Kathir (1300-1373 A.D.), widely regarded by Sunni Muslims to be the best Qur’anic commentator of all time, in his Tafsir had this to say about Surah 2:256’s contention that “there is no compulsion in faith”:
“The reason for the revelation of this verse was that the women of Ansar used to make a vow to convert their sons to Judaism if the latter lived. And when the tribe of Bani an-Nadhir was expelled from Madinah, some children of Ansar were among them, so their parents could not abandon them; hence Allah revealed: “There is no compulsion in religion…” narrated by Ibn Jarir, on the authority of Ibn Abbas, Abu Dawud and an-Nasa’I, on the authority of Bandar, Abu Hatim, and Ibn Hiban from the Hadith of Shu’bah, Mujahid and others. However Muhammad Ibn Ishaq narrated that Ibn Abbas said: It was revealed with regard to a man from the tribe of Bani Salim Ibn Awf called al-Husayni whose two sons converted to Christianity but he was himself a Muslim. He told the Prophet: “Shall I force them to embrace on Islam, they insist on Christianity”, hence Allah revealed this verse. But, this verse is abrogated by the verse of “Fighting”: “You shall be called to fight against a people given to great warfare, then you shall fight them, or they shall surrender” (Surah 48:16). Allah also says: “O prophet! Strive hard against the disbelievers andthe hypocrites, and be harsh against them (9:73), and He says, “O you who believe! Fight those of the disbelievers who are close to you, and let them find harshness in you, and know that Allah is with those who are the Pious (9:123).
Therefore, all people of the world should be called to Islam. If anyone of them refuses to do so, or refuses to pay the Jizya they should be fought till they are killed.”
Thus, according to ibn Kathir, this seemingly tolerant verse has been abrogated by later revelations that teach violence and subjugation against non-Muslims.
Muhammad in Mecca
To gain a better insight into the progression of the Qur’an’s teachings on jihad, it is useful to study the biographies of Muhammad’s life. It is the events and happenings in the life of Muhammad that provide the context that is the key to Qur’anic interpretation. According to the canonical account, Muhammad was born in 570 A.D. Having been orphaned as a young boy (in 575 A.D.), he was raised for a few years by his grandfather Abdul Mutalib. Upon his death in 578 A.D., Muhammad was subsequently raised by his uncle, Abu Talib. Muhammad’s first encounter with the angel Gabriel is purported to have occurred in the year 610 A.D. in the cave of Hira in Mecca (pictured), and the Qur’an is alleged to have been delivered piecemeal between 610 A.D. and Muhammad’s death in 632 A.D. During the period between 610 and 622 A.D., Muhammad and his followers lived as a persecuted minority in Mecca. Although they were critical of the polytheists, their criticisms were made peacefully. Surah Al-Kafiroon (109) is a characteristic chapter of this time in Muhammad’s life:
“Say, O disbelievers, I do not worship that which you worship, Nor do you worship the One whom I worship. And neither I am going to worship that which you have worshipped. Nor will you worship the One whom I worship. For you is your faith and for me, my faith.”
Even during those years in Mecca, however, it seems that Muhammad had greater aspirations. This is seen in Al-Tabari’s History Volume VI (page 95) where we read of an incident where Muhammad’s tribe, the Quraish, went to the house of Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, seeking to arrange a truce with Muhammad. We read,
“Abu Talib sent for the Messenger of Allah, and when he came in he said, “Nephew, here are the shaykhs and nobles of your tribe. They have asked for justice against you, that you should desist from reviling their gods and they will leave you to your god.” “Uncle,” he said, “shall I not summon them to something which is better for them than their gods?” “What do you summon them to?” he asked. He replied, “I summon them to utter a saying through which the Arabs will submit to them and they will rule over the non-Arabs.” Abu Jahl said from among the gathering, “What is it, by your father? We will give you it and ten like it.” He answered, “That you should say, “There is no deity but Allah.'””
Muhammad it appears thus makes an attempt to win the Quraish over to Islam, promising them that they will rule over the non-Arabs. Are the non-Arabs militarily threatening Muhammad at this point? No, they are not. But Muhammad is already planning to rule over them. All he needs is an army, and he appears to be hoping that his tribe can provide him with that army. This conversation between Muhammad and the Quraish went on behind closed doors, whereas publicly he was proclaiming a message of peace and tolerance. This exemplifies well an Islamic principle called Taqiyya, which is taught in Surah Al-E-Imran (3):28:
“The believers must not take the disbelievers as friends instead of the believers. And whoever does that has no relation with Allah whatsoever, unless you (do so) as a protective measure (in order to) save yourself from them. Allah warns you of Himself, for unto Allah is the return.”
In other words, it is perfectly acceptable according to the Qur’an to lie about your true intentions if the purpose is to protect the Muslim community from an adversary from whom they might be in danger if you were to declare your true agenda. To quote from ibn Kathir’s commentary again,
“In this case, such believers are allowed to show friendship outwardly but never inwardly. For instance, Al-Bukhari recorded that Abu Ad-Darda’ said, “We smile in the face of some people although our hearts curse them.'””
Al-Tabari (839–923 A.D.) further elaborates on this Qur’anic verse in his Tafsir commentary:
“If you [Muslims] are under their [infidels’] authority, fearing for yourselves, behave loyally to them, with your tongue, while harboring inner animosity for them… Allah has forbidden believers from being friendly or on intimate terms with the infidels in place of believers — except when infidels are above them [in authority]. In such a scenario, let them act friendly towards them.”
The first stage of jihad is what may be referred to as “stealth jihad” — when you are in a situation where the non-Muslims have more power, it is permissible to feign friendship outwardly, while, as Al-Tabari puts it, “harboring inner animosity for them.”
Following the tragic death of Muhammad’s uncle and protector Abu Talib (who was the leader of the Banu Hashim tribe) in 619 A.D. (which coincided with the death of his first wife Khadijah the same year) Abu Lahab was appointed as Abu Talib’s successor as leader of the Banu Hashim. Although Abu Lahab was also Muhammad’s uncle, he was much more hostile to Muhammad and his message. No longer under the protection of his clan’s leader, and with the dangers from the Quraish tribe mounting, Muhammad was finally forced to flee in 622 A.D. to Yathrib (which he would rename Medina), a prosperous agricultural center that had issues with tribal friction. Muhammad was invited to serve as an arbitrator of disputes. In Medina, Muhammad and his followers thrived, and grew significantly in power and influence.
The doctrine of abrogation provides a consistent interpretive framework for understanding the Qur’an as a whole, and it is vitally important that we understand the division of the Qur’an into Meccan surahs and Medinan surahs. For sure, there are seemingly peaceful and tolerant passages in the Qur’an, but those are generally found among the Meccan surahs rather than the Medinan ones. This is why it will not do to cite the seemingly peaceful passages in the Qur’an completely absent of any historical context. In my next article, we will discuss Muhammad’s life in Medina, and explore how the nature and tone of the Qur’anic revelations changed as Muhammad gained influence and military strength.