In the previous blog I shared how radical jihadism is rooted in the Middle East’s experience of colonialism. But by itself this is not a sufficient reason for suicide bombers. Radical jihadism can only be understood in light of its religious convictions. While mainstream Islam today generally rejects radical jihadism (the very word “Islam” is rooted in “salaam,” the Arabic word for “peace”), its theology, like that of Koresh for some Adventists, can be deeply compelling to a conservatively-minded Muslim. How can Islam contain the roots of both peace and war? I believe the answer to that question is grounded in two realities: 1) Islam is theologically fragmented, there is no central theological authority, and 2) the foundational text of Islam, the Qur’an, is itself is an ambiguous book, amenable to a variety of interpretations.
As mentioned, the Qur’an at its core is a rather ambiguous book. This is acknowledged near the beginning of the generally accepted text. “(Allah) it is Who has sent down to thee the Book; in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are not of well-established meaning. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning. Seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: ‘We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:’ and none will grasp the message except men of understanding” (Âl Imrân 3:7, English translation by ‘Abdullah Yûsuf ‘Alî). Like the Bible, the Qur’an has some texts that are reasonably clear, even after thousands of years. But there are many other passages that are illustrative or complex or whose meanings have been lost over time.
As a result of these ambiguities, and because of the lack of any central theological authority, there are several major ways of understanding the Qur’an within Islam. Each in some sense seeks to clarify the ambiguities and create a coherent religion from it. As I understand it, some Muslims focus on how the Qur’an was understood by the Companions (Arabic sahabah) of Muhammad, those who knew him best and followed him in leadership of the islamic movement, such as Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. But even within this group of interpreters there is a division between Sunni and Shia as to how to apply the teaching of the Companions to their understanding of the Qur’an.
Some time after the death of Muhammad the traditions about Muhammad’s sayings and actions were collected in the Hadith. These included recollections from the Companions, but also later recollections passed on by those who knew the Companions, a much larger group with less connection to the original events. Most Muslims read the Qur’an in light of the Hadith, but differ as to which ones are authentic recollections and which collections of Hadith are more accurate. Sunni and Shia, in particular, differ strongly in these matters.
In later centuries the Qur’an was interpreted by the great commentators, who did their best to exegete (tafsir) the Qur’an. Some of the great commentators were ibn Abbas, al-Askari, al-Tabari, al-Azhari and al-Baghawi. These sought to explain the Qur’an by examining the style of a given text, defining the key words, clarifying the grammar and meaning of whole sentences. They also sought to dig out deeper meanings, explain metaphors and figurative speech, and reconcile verses that seem to contradict each other. Since interpreters today tended to gravitate to one commentator or another, the ambiguities of the Qur’an are often exacerbated by the plethora of options and commentators. Since Islam does not have any central authority like the pope or the General Conference, the ambiguities of the Qur’an are often unresolved by all this research. That helps to explain how the Qur’an can be cited both by promoters of peace and promoters of violent jihad. The ambiguities of the book remain unresolved for most Muslims. In spite of this, even to this day there are Muslims who reject all of these interpretations, including the Hadith, believing that the Qur’an itself is complete and only the pure can truly understand (Âl Imrân 3:7; Al An‘âm 6:114-115; Al Anfâl 8:54; Al Jâthîyah 45:2-6; Al Wâqi‘ah 56:77-81).
Perhaps the Qur’an itself offers a way out of this exegetical morass, even though most Muslims have not explored the following route. According to the Qur’an itself, its ambiguities are best understood, not by later commentators, but by comparison with the earlier revelations, those found in prophets like Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and recorded in the Old (tawrat) and New (Injil) Testaments. The Qur’an assures the reader that Allah does not change in the way He relates to past and present prophets (Al Isra’ 17:77). Readers of the Qur’an are encouraged “to believe in the scripture sent to His Messenger (Muhammad) and the scripture which He sent to those before (him).” (Al Nisa’ 4:136) Believers in the Qur’an are to “make no difference” between its revelations and those of the early prophets recorded in the Bible (al Baqarah 2:136). The purpose of the Qur’an is to “confirm what went before it,” namely the law of Moses (OT) and the gospel of Jesus (NT). (Al ‘Imran 3:3-4) But this confirmation is not a one-way street, the Bible also helps to confirm the meaning of the Qur’an. When Muhammad was uncertain as to the messages he was receiving, he was to “ask those who have been reading the Book (in the form of the Bible) from before thee” (Yunus 10:94). Muslims who read the Qur’an in light of the Bible have discovered that the Qur’an is a very different book than the one they had known before. Knowledge of the “earlier revelations” helps to clarify what is clear and what is not in the Qur’an.
Going further into this last approach to the Qur’an will have to be reserved for another time and another series. I want to focus here on the way that radical jihadists have used the Qur’an to explain the world and justify spiritually things that most people in the world consider horrible evil.