Saturday, February 14, 2015

Does ISIS Represent Islam?

Noah Rothman at Hot Air, in the course of discussing a poll which found that 27% of Americans surveyed believe that ISIS represents Islam, disparages this opinion:
ISIS clearly does not represent Islam. Those who think it does are members of a minority, and that point of view does not withstand even modest scrutiny.
Well, maybe he's right, but I don't know how he can be so sure. Here's my problem. I've been involved in discussions with Muslims who insist that the radicals among them are heretics and that Islam does not condone the sorts of atrocities they commit. Very well, I reply, but what of the numerous Koranic passages which seem to suggest otherwise? All anyone who's interested need do is repair to Google and he or she will find examples that say things like:
  • 9:5 "... fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war) ..."
  • 9:14 "Fight them, and God will punish them by your hands, cover them with shame ..."
  • 9:29 "Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and his apostle nor acknowledge the Religion of Truth (even if they are) of the people of the Book, until they pay the Jizya [religious tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."
  • 47:4 "Therefore, when ye meet the unbelievers, smite at their necks, at length when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them) ... 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."
But these verses are being misinterpreted, my interlocutors protested. The best Muslim scholars assign such passages an interpretation that's different than the interpretation given them by the radicals. They then remind me, rightly, that Christian theologians disagree on how some of the more problematic passages in the Bible should be interpreted and that Christian doctrine has evolved over the centuries, just like Islamic doctrine.

At this point, not being a Koranic or Biblical scholar, I'm tempted to conclude that there's nothing left to say. Even so, it occurs to me that there's one thing more. It seems that one way to get at how these passages should be interpreted is to look at the founders of the two religions. Which of the competing interpretations of the problematic passages comports best with what we know of the lives of Jesus and Mohammad?

When we examine the life of Jesus we see nothing which would lead us to believe that he would ever condone violence. Indeed, we find quite the opposite. When we look at the life of Mohammad, however, we see some disturbing things, at least if the histories can be trusted. Among the most disturbing is his order to behead 700-900 Jewish men and boys who belonged to a tribe, Banu Qurayza, whose ruler Mohammad thought had betrayed him. In fact, reading some histories (see here, for example) of the life of Mohammad is pretty much like reading about ISIS today, including using captive women as sex slaves.

Or, put differently, ISIS has more in common with it's Islamic founding fathers than do moderate Muslims who practice peace and tolerance. It may be that peace-loving Muslims are in the majority today. One certainly hopes so, but they are living a life very much different than that of the founder they revere, at least according to the earliest biographies of Mohammad written by his own followers.

Perhaps, though, those critical biographies of Mohammad and histories of Islam are fraudulent. Perhaps Mohammad wasn't the cruel, rapacious tyrant those historians say he was (see the link above). I'm certainly not qualified to say, but there is an awful lot of scholarship, including Islamic scholarship, that says he was indeed all of that and worse, and more to the point, ISIS certainly believes he was. Whether that image of Mohammad is correct or not, that's the image they're emulating, and until it's clear that that's not who Mohammad was it's very difficult to say, as Rothman does, that ISIS does not represent Islam, at least as it was practiced by the man who founded it.