Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – One of the great tragedies of the early twenty-first century is that the great civilization of Islam, over 1400 years old and with tremendous achievements should have had its escutcheon besmirched with the terrorism of a small fringe of extremists such as Usama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda. It is the faith of nearly a quarter of humanity (and heading toward being that of a third),
Bully-boys and sociopaths like Bin Laden and his associates cherry-pick the Qur’an and quote half a verse to justify themselves. They completely ignore the peace verses in the Qur’an, which address a situation in which there is no state and no head of state and in which, therefore the early Muslim community was instructed to avoid conflict.
Since many in my audience are interested in Islam but may not have much experience with its holy book, the Qur’an, preached by the Prophet Muhammad 610-632 CE, it is worth discussing how starkly mass terrorism differs from its values.
1. The Criterion 25:63 says, “The servants of the All-Merciful are those who walk humbly upon the earth — and when the unruly address them, they reply, ‘Peace!'” The Qur’an urges believers to emulate God, the compassionate and merciful, serving the All-Merciful. When ruffians (al-jahilun) taunt and harass them, they are to reply by wishing peace on their enemies. They are praised for walking humbly upon the earth.
Sufis such as Qushayri and Sulami saw this verse as an encouragement to cultivate the divine characteristics of mercy and compassion on all human beings, and thought only spiritual adepts could reach the state where they could sincerely wish peace, security and prosperity on people who were persecuting them.
Bin Laden for all his pretensions was just a rich psychopath (an increasingly worrisome phenomenon about which those old James Bond movies were prescient). He was not a recognized leader or head of state. He was just a civilian.
According to the rules of the Qur’an, his situation was like that of the early community in Mecca, which had no authority and therefore was instructed to let God handle such disputes.
2. In fact, ordinary Muslims are ordered to do good to their enemies to win them over.
Distinguished 41:33-35 observes, “Whose discourse is more beautiful than one who calls others to God and performs good works and proclaims, ‘I am among those who have acquiesced in the monotheist tradition? The good deed and the evil deed are not equal. Repel the latter with what is better and behold, it will be as though the one, with whom you have a mutual enmity, is a devoted patron. Yet to none is this granted save the patient, and to none is it granted save the supremely fortunate.”
This instruction to do good to your enemies perhaps goes even beyond what Jesus recommends in the New Testament. It is dialogical, urging believers to reach out to those who would do them harm, and attempt to transform them into supportive patrons.
While these verses are from the period of the Prophet’s preaching in the West Arabian shrine city of Mecca, 610-622, and while Muslims were later permitted to defend themselves from war-like assaults, they have analogues in the later chapters delivered after the Prophet moved to the city of Medina and formed a commonwealth, as well.
3. When civilians not at the head of a state kill, they simply are committing murder: Murder is strictly forbidden in the Qur’an. 5:53 says, “… whoso kills a soul, unless it be [a sanctioned execution] for murder or for committing brigandage in the land, it shall be as if he had killed all mankind; and he who saves a life, it shall be as if he had given life to all mankind,” This is a paraphrase, as the Qur’an admits, of the Jerusalem Talmud.
If killing one soul is equivalent to xenocide, to the killing of a whole species, then what is slaughtering 3,000 innocents?
4. The Cow 2:190 instructs Muhammad’s believers: “Fight in the path of God those who enter into combat against you, but do not commit aggression. God does not love aggressors.” This was one of the first verses to permit self-defense, once the early Muslim community had relocated to Medina. The arrogant pagan Meccans came after them there, and if they had not taken up arms at that point, they and their families would have been massacred by the attackers.
Nevertheless, the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, only authorizes defensive military actions.
Not even one of those killed on September 11 had entered into combat against Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
5. Many commentators point out that the implication of this verse is that warriors of one state may fight attacking warriors of another state, but non-combatants must be spared.
All of the people killed on 9/11 were non-combatants.
6. The Spoils 8:61 says: “If they incline toward peace, you must incline toward it. Trust in God–he is all-hearing and omniscient.”
Since al-Qaeda staged a sneak attack on thousands of innocents, it had no way of knowing whether they inclined toward peace. There is no reason to think they weren’t peaceful people. This verse shows that the Qur’an disapproves of aggressive warfare and only authorizes defensive actions. After all, wouldn’t any enemy that was being attacked by Muslims declare for peace and so trigger an end to the war?
7. The Qur’an recognizes that Jews and Christians are, like Muslims, monotheists and it guarantees them liberty of life and property. The Qur’an assures Christians and Jews of paradise if they believe and do good works, and commends Christians as the best friends of Muslims. I wrote elsewhere, “Dangerous falsehoods are being promulgated to the American public. The Quran does not preach violence against Christians.
- Quran 5:69 says (Arberry): “Surely they that believe, and those of Jewry, and the Christians, and those Sabeaans, whoso believes in God and the Last Day, and works righteousness–-their wage waits them with their Lord, and no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow.”
In other words, the Quran promises Christians and Jews along with Muslims that if they have faith and works, they need have no fear in the afterlife. Fred Donner has argued that Muhammad created a rainbow coalition of monotheists, of Jews Christians and Muslims. Muslims are permitted to share food with the other communities and even to intermarry.
Bin Laden’s characterization of all Christians as “crusaders” was a slap in the face to this Qur’anic ecumenism.
Modern Muslim jurists have often incorporated international law into contemporary states, so medieval Muslims texts are not always relevant to today’s society. But Bin Laden and his like pick and choose in medieval texts to justify themselves.
Still, according to the medieval Muslim law of war, a Muslim army may not commit a sneak attack. The Prophet Muhammad at one point gave 4 months notice (Q. 9:5).
9/11 was the ultimate in sneak attacks.
Noncombatants must be spared.
All those killed were noncombatants.
Only a head of state may declare war.
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were just civilian riffraff playing guerrilla. They had no state and were elected by no one. They appointed themselves mass murderers.
According to Muslim law, what al-Qaeda did was brigandage (al-hiraba), which is strictly forbidden and indeed is potentially a capital crime in the Qur’an.
For more on what Qur’anic Islam looked like, see my recent book,