Tag Archives: interpreting the Qur’an

Combating Terrorism

Recently I presented on the above topic at the first public health conference since the shootings in San Bernardino (which were perpetrated at a social gathering of public health officials). I spoke alongside a couple of muslim scholars representing biblical scholars who are also interested in the Qur’an and Islam. I suggested that Muslims and I share three core convictions that are pertinent to the issue of combating terrorism. I sense that my Muslim co-panelists agreed with me enthusiastically.

The first conviction is that there is a cosmic conflict, or cosmic jihad as Muslims might call it, between good and evil, God and Satan. In texts like Revelation 12, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, Genesis 3 and Job 1 and 2, the Bible draws back the curtain to reveal behind the conflicts of this earth a universe-wide conflict over God’s character and government. Various aspects of this cosmic “jihad” are also clearly expressed in the Qur’an (1:1-4; 7:11-15, 20-22; 15:39; 17:62-65; 25:52; 26:94-98; 30:11-14; 59:19), building on the earlier prophetic revelations in the Bible. This large theme tells me that there is a battle between good and evil at the heart of every religion, including Islam. Every religion has the capacity for good or for evil. To simply say Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of violence is not an adequate analysis. Islam is part of the battleground in the cosmic conflict or jihad. Any analysis of the history of Christianity will affirm the same there. All religions here on earth are battlegrounds in the cosmic conflict.

Second, God is a God of love and love requires freedom in order to be truly love. So human beings have been created with the freedom to love God and each other or to be rebellious and violent. That means that there is no compulsion in true religion. The religion that has God’s approval is one that values human freedom and does not coerce. And a God of love and freedom does not normally intervene to interrupt the consequences of human rebellion. Hence the terrorists have the freedom to do their work with all of its horrible consequences for the innocent as well as the guilty (Gen 2:17-17; 3:11; Deut 30:19; Josh 24:15; John 8:32-36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13; Qur’an 2:256; 4:115; 16:125-128; 17:62-65). Furthermore, the lack of religious freedom in most muslim countries is the work of the evil one rather a manifestation of true faith.

Third, it is a law of life that we become like the God we worship. If we believe that God is arbitrary, punitive, judgmental and severe, we ourselves will become more and more like that. If we believe that God is loving, gracious, forgiving and merciful, we will become more and more like that. In their actions the terrorists betray a horrific view of God, and since they believe that their theology is right, their actions reveal what they think God is like and what God approves. While there are many texts in both the Bible and the Qur’an that have been used to justify such a violent God, both sacred texts climax with a very different picture. The high point of the Bible on this question is John 14:9. There Jesus affirms, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The life of Jesus, in its love, mercy, kindness and self-sacrifice, is a picture of what the Christian God is truly like. Likewise, in the Qur’an, the high point is in The Opening to the Qur’an (al Fatiha), 1:1-4. The character of Allah is there summarized in two words, merciful and compassionate (compare with Exodus 34:6-7). The God of the Qur’an is not a monster, but is gracious and compassionate toward humanity. In fact, this description of God is at the head of all but one of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an and the rest of the Qur’an needs to be read with that picture of God in mind. The two high point passages referenced above have many counterparts in both sacred texts. Violent humans have cherry-picked sacred texts for centuries to justify evil actions. But at the core of the Bible and the Qur’an are affirmations of a gracious God. How one reads is a choice, and we become like the God we worship.

Followers of ISIS and al Qaeda might be comfortable in general with the first point. They would see themselves as God’s true warriors, fighting the cosmic jihad for Him on this earth. But the God that they are fighting for is nothing like the God introduced in the opening phrase of the Qur’an. And they certainly do not respect the freedom of any who disagree with them. Their use of sacred texts is selective in the extreme, and the God they worship has all the characteristics of Satan: He is punitive, judgmental, violent, and hates His enemies. In the service of God it is possible to behave like the Enemy (compare Rev 16:2).

What about the “Muslim God”?

According to the Bible, there is only one God, the One worshiped by Abraham. Other gods do not exist. Satan and his associates are imposters, God’s rivals in name only. Jews, Christians and Muslims agree on this.

This one creator God is known by various names in different languages and those who worship him in all these languages and cultures have very different ideas of who He is. So while we disagree about his nature, the fact remains that there is only one God, whom we all (Muslims, Jews and Christians) worship with greater or lesser insight into his true character and mission.

Are Muslims worshiping a “different god,” meaning a different spiritual entity? No, that is not even possible; because we do not believe a different god exists, unless we are prepared to believe that Muslims worship Satan unknowingly.

Jesus’ example towards the Samaritan woman is instructive here. He did not tell her, “you worship the wrong God.” Instead He told her: “You Samaritans worship what you do not know, we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” And then he led her into a full understanding of who he was in comparison with that which she did not know. This is what I mean when I say that we move from common ground to higher ground.

From Waco to Isis: The Roots of Radical Jihadism, Part 2

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.