Tag Archives: Mardin

The Qur’an: the uncorrupted word of God/Allah (one)?

The last month (March 2016) has not been a good time for people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who believe that Islam is a force for good in the world. Islamist/jihadist extremists have murdered over thirty people in Brussels; the Taliban in Pakistan (or a group that has broken away from the Taliban) has claimed responsibility for murdering over seventy people in Lahore, many of whom were Christian women and children who had gathered in a park to celebrate Easter; the civil war continues in Syria with most deaths and destruction of buildings, etc. the direct responsibility of Muslims supporting or opposing the Assad regime; Islamic State militants have been driven from Palmyra (where, in the ancient city, they destroyed two temples, some arches and a few unusual tombs, and where, in the museum, they trashed hundreds of important artefacts of great age including unique examples of elaborately carved stone), but not before they rounded up many local people whom they forced to relocate to territory still under their control; and Asad Shah, a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow, has been stabbed to death by a fellow Muslim, in all likelihood because he posted on social media a message that in part read, “Good Friday and a very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation” (during the attack, Shah may have been stamped on the head by his killer). Moreover, protests have taken place in Pakistan following the execution of Mumtaz Qadri, who shot and killed the Punjab governor, Salmaan Taseer, in 2011 because Taseer advocated reform of Pakistan’s contemptible blasphemy laws (Qadri is regarded by Pakistan’s “conservative Muslims” as someone who rightfully “defended the honour of Islam”); and female genital mutilation, honour-based violence and forced marriage are more likely to occur in Muslim communities than any other communities globally.

Urfa, Turkey

Urfa, Turkey

Many of the crimes, practices and/or dispositions of mind above are directly or indirectly attributable to passages contained in the Qur’an, a book which mainstream Muslims are encouraged to regard as the uncorrupted word of God/Allah that humankind must conform with at all times and in all circumstances (Muslims must conform with its content because, for Sunni Muslims at least, the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah). Because of this, it is right to subject to scrutiny the claim that the Qur’an IS the uncorrupted word of God/Allah. As you can imagine, the claim has inspired debate among Muslims and non-Muslims for a long time, despite the risks involved when subjecting to scrutiny such a fundamental tenet of mainstream (Sunni?) Islam (many Muslims and non-Muslims who have questioned whether the Qur’an is the uncorrupted word of God/Allah have suffered everything from vilification on social media to murder at the hands of extremists), but, perhaps for the first time ever, the slow accumulation of reliable evidence allows everyone, no matter their background, to approach the question in a more informed and dispassionate manner.

In the first of three posts about the matter, I present what might be called the official/ mainstream view in relation to the question. Below, in an article easily accessed on the internet (I have made a few cosmetic amendments to enhance clarity of expression, etc.), Dr. Mohammad Shafi explains how the Qur’an was revealed and compiled. As the article unfolds, I urge everyone to consider whether it is possible for mere humans, the prophet Muhammad included, to have conveyed to others precisely what God/Allah is alleged to have said to Muhammad via the angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-two or twenty-three years. Put another way, given the large number of people involved in agreeing the content of the Qur’an that Muslims use today, and given the length of time between the first revelation and when the world of official/mainstream (Sunni?) Islam alleges authenticated copies of the Qur’an were issued to the rapidly growing Muslim community, how is it possible for the Qur’an to be the uncorrupted word of God/Allah?

A word of advice: every so often in the article you will find brackets. Within some of the brackets are my insertions where a comment/reflection/warning about what Dr. Shafi writes cannot go unacknowledged. Respect for objectivity/critical detachment necessitates such interventions.

Near Hizan, Turkey

Near Hizan, Turkey

The Qur’an – how it was revealed and compiled. Dr. Mohammad Shafi.

“Qur’an” means “reading” or “recitation”. However, the word has specifically come to mean the Qur’an revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an is the foundational book of Muslims and, in fact, of the Arabic language (!?!). Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the complete and authentic record of the original revelations, claimed by the Prophet to be the literal word of God, and was organised in its current form by the direct instructions of the Prophet himself (below, there are indications that the latter is not the case). They believe that no one has the authority to alter the Qur’an since every word in the Qur’an is the literal word of God.

Over the ages the Qur’an has been translated into dozens of languages, but only the Arabic text is considered the authentic Qur’an. There is complete agreement on a single text of this Arabic Qur’an by Muslims of all schools of law, of all theological and philosophical leanings, and of all ethnicities and nationalities (?!? Such “complete agreement” among Muslims does NOT exist). Notwithstanding a few detractors, the majority of non-Muslim scholars also agree that the current Qur’an is a faithful record of what the Prophet claimed to be the revelations to him from God, as they existed at the time of the Prophet’s death (?!? This claim, if it was ever reliable, is no longer sustainable, as later posts devoted to the matter will confirm).

The Qur’an is also memorised by hundreds of thousands of people and read by Muslims on all occasions; it is, perhaps, read by more people on a constant basis than any other book in human history. The Qur’an, therefore, continues to be a book as well as a recitation. The two traditions reinforce each other and assure the protection of the integrity of the Qur’an and the failure of all attempts at altering or corrupting it.

The Qur’an is organised in 114 chapters called Surahs which contain 6,237 Ayahs (verses or signs) of various lengths. More than three-fourths (86 out of 114) of the Surahs were revealed during the thirteen years of the Prophet’s mission in Makkah; the remaining 28 were revealed during the entire ten years of his life in Madinah. The Surahs are foundational divisions. For the convenience of reading the book in a month, it is divided into 30 equal parts (each called a Juz), and, for reading it in a week, it is divided into 7 equal parts (each called a Manzil). It is said that the Makkah Surahs primary deal with the basics of the belief system and the Madinah Surahs are about the practice of faith. This, at best, is an oversimplification.

This may be a good place to dispel some common misconceptions about the arrangement of the Qur’an. It is often said that the order of the Qur’an is roughly in decreasing order of the size of the Surahs (except the first). It is true that most of the longest Surahs are at the beginning and most of the shortest are at the end. The longest Surah is the second one and has 286 Ayahs, and the shortest (103, 108 and 110) are toward the end and have 3 Ayahs each. But, beyond this general observation, one can easily demonstrate a lack of order by size of the Surahs. After the 5th Surah, the order by size breaks down. For example, the 6th Surah (with 165 Ayahs) is shorter, and not longer, than the 7th (with 206 Ayahs); the 8th (with 75 Ayahs) is shorter than the 9th (with 149 Ayahs); and the 15th (with 99 Ayahs) is shorter than the 16th (with 148 Ayahs). The reverse can be shown at the end of the Book. Surah 95 (with 8 Ayahs) is shorter, not longer, than Surah 96 (with 19 Ayahs) and Surah 103 (with 3 Ayahs) is shorter than Surah 104 (with 9 Ayahs).

It is also often stated that the Surahs are arranged in a reverse chronological order of the revelation. If this were true, Surah 9 would be Surah 1 or 2, and all the beginning Surahs would be from Madinah and all those at the end would be from Makkah. But this is not the case. Seven of the first 20 Surahs are from the Makkah period and three of the last 20 Surahs (98, 99 and 110) are from the Madinah period.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

In contrast with the above-mentioned speculations, Muslims believe that the arrangement of the Qur’an was determined by the Prophet himself, under guidance from God. They see in this arrangement a coherence that is suitable for all people and for all times to come.

The Qur’an deals with Divine nature, God’s intervention in history and spiritual lessons learned from observation of nature, from life and from history. It deals with major themes which are often illustrated with bits of relevant stories of previous prophets and of bygone cultures, kingdoms and empires. All of these themes are interwoven throughout the Qur’an, although, naturally, some Surahs deal more with matters of faith and others with matters related to living a good life. There is emphasis on regular prescribed prayers, on constant supplications, on deep self-evaluation, on regular fasting, on pilgrimage to the holy sites related to the origins of the worship of one God, on specific rules related to equity in inheritance (?!?), on constant charity, and on social justice for all irrespective of social status (?!?). Specifics and details of much of these are left to the Prophet to develop and demonstrate by practice. Beyond that, the Qur’an does not dwell much on matters of ritual per se or on laws and procedures.

The emphasis of the Qur’an can be seen from the names it uses for itself. Some of these names are: Al-Huda (The Guidance), Al-Dhikr (The Reminder), Al-Furqan (The Criterion – for judging right from wrong), Al-Shifa (The Healing), Al-Mau’iza (The Admonition), Al-Rahmah (The Mercy), Al-Nur (The Light), Al-Haqq (The Truth) and Al-Burhaan (The Clear Argument). It does not call itself a book of law of science or of procedural prescriptions. Only about 500 to 600 Ayahs are related to rules and regulations and less than 100 of these can be directly implemented through legislation. One needs the extensive Hadith literature and elaborate legal processes to derive legal rules and get them to a level where implementation issues can be discussed.

The first revelation came to Mohammad when he was forty years old and was on one of his customary retreats in the cave of Hira in the hills outside Makkah. It was one of the odd nights during the last ten days of the month of Ramadan. According to the reports recorded in the authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, an angelic presence appeared before the perplexed Mohammad and said to him, “Iqra (which can mean “read” or “recite”).” Mohammad replied that he could not recite or did not know what to recite. After the instructions to read or recite were repeated two more times, Mohammad reported that the angelic presence held him and squeezed him so tightly that he felt that his breath was leaving his body. The angelic presence then instructed him to recite with him the words that are now recorded as the first 5 Ayahs of the 96th Surah, Al-Qalam, (The Pen):

Read (or recite) in the name of your Lord who created (and continues to create); created humankind from a clot of congealed blood. Read and your Lord is The Most Generous; who taught by the pen; taught humankind what it did not know.

These are the first words of the revelation that take Mohammad from an unassuming but generous and trusted member of his city to become Mohammad the Messenger of God, Al-Rasool Allah. A man with no worldly ambitions, and unknown for eloquence and speech, becomes the most eloquent and persistent critic of his society. He becomes a passionate advocate for reform based on the worship of one God and insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female (!?! It is ironic that Muhammad should be seen as “a persistent critic of his society” and “a passionate advocate for reform… insisting on dignity, equality and justice for the slaves, the poor and the female” because, today, Islam is often used by Muslims to stifle criticism and to ensure that slaves, the poor and women are denied dignity, equality and justice).

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford

The experience of this first revelation shakes Mohammad and stuns him. He hurries to his wife Khadijah and asks her to cover him with a blanket. When he recovers his composure, he relates to her the story of his experience. He is concerned that he may be hallucinating or losing his mind. She assures him that he is a very balanced person and that his experience must have some supernatural explanation. She suggests that they go to visit one her old relatives known for knowledge of previous scriptures. Her relative, Waraqa ibn Naufal, tells Mohammad that his experience resembles that of Moses and the other prophets. He suggests that Mohammad has been chosen as a messenger by God. He warns Mohammad that the people will oppose him as they opposed the prophets before him.

An interval of several months passes after the above revelation. The Prophet is wrapped up in a blanket, feeling despondent and afraid of having been removed by God from his mission. This is when the revelation of Ayahs 1 through 7 of the 74th Surah, Al-Moddaththir (The One Wrapped), occurs:

O you wrapped up (in your cloak), arise and deliver the warning. And proclaim the glory of your Lord. And purify and cleanse your garments. And shun all idolatry and filth. And do no favours, expecting gain in return. And for the sake of your Lord, be patient and constant.

Further revelations come over the remaining thirteen years of the Prophet’s life in Makkah and ten years in Madinah. By the time of his death, the revelations comprised of 114 Surahs. The last of these is Al-Taubah, now numbered the 9th. But the last words of the revelation are said to be in the third Ayah of Surah 5, Al-Ma’idah:

Today I have completed for you your religion, fulfilled upon you My favours, and approved for you Al-Islam as your religion.

The revelations were recorded contemporaneously by one of the scribes appointed by the Prophet for this purpose. After every revelation, the Prophet would come out to the public (unless he was already outside) and recite to the people the new verses. He would also instruct one of the scribes to write it down. According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, he would tell them where the new revelation was to be positioned in relation to previous revelations. The scribes would write on whatever material was available at the moment. Thus the writing medium ranged from a stone, the leaf of a palm tree, the shoulder bone of a camel, the membrane on the inside of a deerskin, a parchment or a papyrus. These writings were stored in a corner of the Prophet’s room and later, perhaps, in a separate room or office near the Prophet’s room.

It should be mentioned that while Al-Qur’an means “the recitation”, it also calls itself “The Book”. The root word for book, k-t-b, occurs in the Qur’an more than 300 times. The word and concept of Surah is also in the Qur’an, and so is the word Ayah.

The Makkans, being a merchant society, had a large pool of those who could read and write. There were as many as eleven scribes during the early part of the Madinah period also. The most prominent of these was an elderly gentleman, named Ubayy ibn Ka’b. The Prophet was then introduced to an energetic teenager named Zayd ibn Thabit. Zayd was eager to learn and was placed directly under the Prophet’s supervision. After he had accomplished his initial assignments in record time, the Prophet made him in charge of the qur’anic record. Zayd became the principal scribe, organiser and keeper of the record.

Hundreds of people memorised the Qur’an and many wrote down what they had learned. But keeping up with the new revelations and the changing arrangement of the Ayahs in the Surahs was not possible except for a few. To keep up, hundreds of people (no doubt all male) regularly reviewed the Qur’an they knew. Many did this under the Prophet’s own guidance. Others did it under the supervision of teachers designated by the Prophet. Those from remote areas, who had visited only once or occasionally, may not have kept up. Some, who wrote what they had learned, may not have inserted the new revelations in the manner prescribed by the Prophet (an interesting and enlightening paragraph).

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Islamic Society Mosque, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne

The Prophet was meticulous about the integrity of the Qur’an. He constantly recited, in public, the Surahs as they were arranged at the time. It is reported that angel Gabriel reviewed the entire Qur’an with the Prophet once a year during the month of Ramadan. This review was done twice during the last year of the Prophet’s life. And Zayd maintained the records faithfully, kept them properly indexed and made sure they were complete according to the Prophet’s instructions (is there reliable evidence to support this very important claim?).

At the time of the Prophet’s death, Zayd had a complete record of all the revelations except the last two Ayahs of Surah 9, the Al-Taubah. The Prophet used to indicate the completion of a Surah by instructing that the sentence, “(I begin) In the name of God, the Most Merciful, the Most Compassionate” be written at its beginning. This wording at the beginning of each Surah became both a separator from other Surahs and an indication that the Surah was now complete. This formulation is missing from the 9th Surah, indicating that no one wanted to add anything to the Qur’an that the Prophet had himself not ordered, even if it seemed logical to do so.

After the Prophet’s death, the community chose Abu Bakr as its temporal chief, the Khalifah of the Messenger, the Caliph. About a year later, a large number of those known as authoritative memorisers were killed in a battle (this “fact” is an important one). According to authentic (?!?) Hadith literature, Umar ibn al-Khattab (who became the second Caliph) was alarmed by this and concerned that the next generation may not have enough teachers of the Qur’an. He therefore approached Abu Bakr and suggested that a formal compilation of the Qur’an be prepared on materials that would be convenient to store, maintain and use as a reference. According to the Hadith literature, Abu Bakr was reluctant to do something the Prophet himself had not undertaken. After a few days, however, he “became inclined” to the idea and asked Zayd to undertake the task. Zayd said he also hesitated, but, after contemplation, “became inclined” and agreed to undertake the work. A committee was formed to do the job. The committee compiled a collection by checking and double-checking each Ayah of the existing record of the Qur’an with the memories of each member of the committee as well as of other prominent experts (did this process lead to amendments to the existing “record of the Qur’an”? Sadly, we are not told. It is highly likely that it did, of course). This copy was housed with Hafsa, one of the Prophet’s wives (Hafsa was a daughter of Umar ibn al-Khattab).

By the time of the third Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, the Muslim population had spread over vast areas outside the core Arab regions and many people of other cultures were entering Islam. About fifteen years after the first compilation, therefore, it was suggested that authenticated copies of the Qur’an be made available to major population centres in those areas. Zayd again was instructed to undertake the task. He again formed a committee. Instead of just making copies of the existing text, it was decided to seek corroboration of each Ayah in the earlier compilation with at least two other written records in the private copies in the possession of known reputable individuals (did this task lead to further amendments to the qur’anic text? It is highly likely that it did, of course). It is reported that this comparison was successful for all Ayahs except one. For this Ayah, only one comparison could be found. But it was in the hands of a person who was considered so reliable by the Prophet himself that his lone testimony was accepted by the Prophet in a case requiring two witnesses. It is reported that seven copies of the collection were prepared and authenticated. One of these copies was given to the Caliph himself. One became the reference copy for the people of Madinah, one was sent to Makkah, one was sent to Kufah and one was sent to Damascus (where the other copies went is not revealed/known).

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

We should mention that the committee, while doing its work, confirmed the general observation that all private copies were incomplete, some were out of sequence, some were in tribal dialects other than the standard Quraish dialect and many had marginal notes inserted by the owners (which suggests that many compromises had to be made when deciding on the content of the officially endorsed Qur’an. In many respects, therefore, the content of the officially endorsed text must have been very different to how Muhammad intended it to be). The committee members expressed concern that as time passes the context of these deficiencies will be lost. These partial copies may get into public circulation after the death of the owners of these records and become a source of schisms and create confusion. They therefore recommended that all such copies be destroyed. The Caliph issued orders to this effect, but did not put in place any mechanisms for enforcing the orders. There is sufficient evidence that some people kept their copies and some were used by mischief-makers to create controversies that did not succeed (this would seem to confirm that alternative versions of the Qur’an survived production and circulation of the officially endorsed copy of the text. This is something that will be examined in more detail in a future post devoted to the origins of the Qur’an).

The authentic copies of the Qur’an are known as the Uthmani text. This text, however, did not have the short vowels that are even today left out of Arabic text used by those who know the language. In the absence of the short vowels, however, those not well versed in the language can make serious mistakes. These vowels were, therefore, inserted about sixty years later under instructions of the governor of Kufa, Hajjaj Ibn Yusuf (in other words, the Qur’an was amended yet again, on this occasion to clarify the vowels that should be used to render the text more accessible/less ambiguous).

A footnote regarding required qualifications for interpreting the Qur’an.

The Qur’an, being considered the literal word of God (by Sunni Muslims, at least), is taken very seriously by Muslims. It is not enough to just study the Arabic language to interpret the Qur’an. Muslims have agreed (?!?) over the centuries that one must be well-versed in the following before one is considered qualified to offer a credible opinion. You must have:

Mastery of classical Arabic (the Arabic of the Quraish at the time of the Prophet).
Mastery of the entire book (“The Qur’an explains the Qur’an”).
A thorough knowledge of Hadith literature (the Prophet’s interpretation is binding and those around him understood it better than the later generations).
A deep knowledge of the life of the
Prophet and of the first community (no interpretation is valid that ignores the original context).
A commanding knowledge of the exegetical notes and writings of the early Muslim scholars and of the traditions of the early Muslim communities.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

P.S. Above is a lengthy article explaining in very precise detail what Muslims are encouraged to believe about how the Qur’an came into existence. The content of the article can be interpreted as the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim understanding of how (and why) we possess the Qur’an today. It goes without saying: even with all the “evidence” above, anyone assessing it objectively is forced to conclude the following. First, whatever one may believe about the angel Gabriel’s role in transmitting the revelations from God/Allah to Muhammad, the Qur’an as it currently exists is the product of many interventions by Muslims (all of whom were male?) over an extended period of time. Second, such Muslims relied on texts deriving from many sources to work out (guess?) what were and were not genuine/accurate revelations deriving from God/Allah. Third, such Muslims relied on texts of the Qur’an that often differed one from the other, and on evidence from Muhammad’s close companions and, later, people who had never met him, to work out (guess?) the order that the prophet wanted the revelations arranged. Fourth, common sense therefore dictates that, in situations such as the ones just identified in which human error is so easy to imagine, it is impossible to conclude that the Qur’an as it currently exists is, in every respect, precisely how Muhammad intended it to be just before he died. Last, given the official/mainstream (Sunni?) Muslim explanation for how the Qur’an came into existence, common sense also dictates that there are therefore no convincing reasons to believe that the Qur’an is the perfect and uncorrupted word of God/Allah.

P.P.S. I apologise for repeating some ideas immediately above, but what follows is of considerable importance. Given how Muslims (Sunni Muslims, at least) insist the Qur’an came into existence, one has to ask, “How is it possible to sustain the idea that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God devoid of additions, amendments or deletions undertaken by humankind?” Also, just as the official/mainstream Muslim view of how the Qur’an came into being confirms how unlikely it is that copies of the Qur’an which exist today are exactly as Muhammad intended them to be at the time he died (how can they possibly be inerrant, therefore?), Dr. Shafi’s footnote above suggests that almost no one today has the knowledge, understanding and/or skills to engage with the Qur’an and fully understand it. Put another way, almost no one today is in a position to interpret the Qur’an accurately. Perhaps for this reason above all others, the Qur’an should therefore be regarded simply as a book of literature offering us interesting insights into how society functioned in the Arabian Peninsula just over 1,400 years ago. Perhaps even better, especially given the harm it does when people interpret it badly, the Qur’an should be ignored altogether, other than by scholars and/or those who can engage with scripture with the unbiased, critical detachment it necessarily requires.

Of course, at no time soon will the Qur’an be regarded in the ways recommended above; it will continue to be used and abused by Muslims to shape their understanding of what it means to be devout and to determine what it means to lead a distinctively Muslim lifestyle. This therefore means that much work must be undertaken by Muslims to separate from within the Qur’an those aspects of the text that are morally admirable and those aspects of the text that encourage morally repellent behaviour. In reality, of course, a lot of this work has already been completed by Muslims around the world (one need look no further than the work of some “liberal/modernist” Sunni and Shia scholars and many Sufi, Ahmadiyya and Alevi Muslims), but a majority of mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims appear reluctant to engage constructively with the enlightening and enlightened ideas that derive from such people within the global umma.

P.P.P.S. It has now been revealed that Asad Shah was an Ahmadiyya Muslim. His murder therefore has a sectarian dimension to it.

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Nasir Mosque, Hartlepool

Islamist Extremism.

Whether we like to admit it or not, at present Islamist extremism is the biggest extremist threat globally. Consequently, please bear in mind the following.

Although it is clear that an alarmingly large number of Muslims, especially young Muslims, appear drawn to extremist/Islamist/Salafist/ jihadist agendas, such Muslims still constitute a very small percentage of the whole Muslim population (which exceeds a billion people).

To the best of my knowledge, no UK Muslim who is Shia, Sufi, Ismaeli or Ahmadiyya has been implicated in any way with extremist agendas.

Almost every known or suspected Muslim extremist in the UK, and the vast majority globally, are Sunni Muslims. Moreover, among the Sunni Muslims who incline toward extremism, the vast majority are male, not female  – and most Muslims who have fled from, say, the Islamic State, the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram or the dozens of other extremist Sunni groups – there are some Shia extremist groups, but they are far fewer in number – are female. Most Muslim women know that such expressions of Islam are detrimental, not beneficial, to the interests of girls and women. As for non-Muslims, and Muslims who do not fully endorse the extremist narratives, death awaits most of them  – or, possibly, sexual slavery if you are female and attractive. Look, for example, at the case of the peace-loving Yazidis of Syria and Iraq.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Most of my Muslim friends come from within the Sunni tradition and, to the best of my knowledge, not one of them is an extremist, but many of them tell me that many Sunni Muslims incline toward extremism because of how they interpret the Qur’an (they interpret it literally) and how they seek guidance from the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad. The Sunnah helps shape the “ideal” lifestyle for Muslims, especially for male Muslims). Sunni friends tell me that Sunni Muslims are discouraged (sometimes with death threats) from doing what in most religious traditions is now deemed normal, right, proper and necessary: they are discouraged from critically evaluating/questioning the “truths”, traditions, routines and conventions that have evolved over time within the Muslim world view. In other words, many expressions of Sunni Islam have become resistant to long-needed critical evaluation, above all by Muslims themselves.

One of my best Muslim friends is of the opinion that “the problem of Islamic extremism” (his words) will never end “until Muslims themselves engage in the critical evaluation of scripture and tradition that so many other expressions of religious faith have benefited from since the Enlightenment”. What he says makes a lot of sense.

An Alevi Muslim recently said to me in Turkey, “The sickness that has taken over the minds and the hearts and the souls of so many Sunni Muslims in recent years will not end if the West stops intervening in the Muslim world, or if Israel grants to the Palestinians a land of their own, or if in Muslim-majority nation states extremist Sunni groups are allowed to establish oppressive regimes based on the imposition of sharia (Muslim religious law). The sickness will end only when Muslims distance themselves from the many quotes in the Qur’an that call for the murder of infidels and unbelievers, or that call for the death of Jews and Christians. It will end only when Muslims distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad such as the murder of opponents, or when they distance themselves from actions ascribed to Muhammad that civilised people today think are questionable or, in some cases, wholly unacceptable.”

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy

A Sunni friend recently said to me, “Until you in the West realise that the extremists want to destroy your way of life, you will never confront the challenge with sufficient conviction. And Islam will never rid itself of the elephant in its midst until the vast majority of sensible, pragmatic and peace-loving Muslims worldwide unite to reveal that Islam need not be hostile to democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance for people with different religions and beliefs – and, even, that Islam need not be hostile to freedom of speech. In other words, such Muslims must confront the shortcomings that exist in the very foundations on which the faith is based, the Qur’an and the example of the prophet Muhammad.” These sound words are immense challenges to many ordinary and conventionally pious Muslims, but the fact that such words derive from someone within the global community of the Muslim faithful is not without importance.

Aman (in Arabic, etc. the name means “security”), a North-East England-based organisation, is notable in that it seeks to weed out extremism among ALL people, but among Muslims in particular, and to combat Islamophobia by, among other things, confirming that Islam is NOT hostile to the “British” values identified above. I am currently re-reading the Quran, albeit in translation, and the more I study it the more I think Aman’s greatest challenge lies in relation to confirming that Islam IS in sympathy with the “British” values.

Allow me to take one such value as an example. My understanding of democracy is that the will of the people takes precedent over the will, real or imagined, of any thing (e.g. God or gods) or any individual or any group of people that does not constitute a majority. The will of the people is determined by a secret ballot and access to such a ballot must be on a regular basis.

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Mosque, Kahramanmaras, Turkey

Islam means “submission”, and submission to the will of Allah alone. What Allah requires of humankind must be conformed with. The Qur’an is replete with requirements said to derive from Allah and, because they are said to derive from Allah, humankind cannot change them, even if it is self-evidently the case that the requirements are unjust and detrimental to the well-being of vast numbers of people (e.g., witness the requirements said to derive from Allah that shape the treatment of women, or those that relate to how non-Muslims must necessarily be discriminated against if they live in Muslim lands where sharia prevails). Anyone committed to, say, equality for all or just treatment for all people before the law will necessarily wish to amend these requirements to enhance human rights for groups suffering disadvantage and/or discrimination. However, if you subscribe to the idea that anything said to derive from Allah cannot be changed, you are condemning certain people to disadvantage, discrimination, injustice and a lot worse, potentially for all time. In this respect, therefore, Islam is antithetical to democracy. Democracy is NOT an ideal political system, perhaps especially as it manifests itself today in the UK, but it is superior to any political system predicated on laws and/or conventions based on religious principles.

Luis Bunuel, the great Spanish film-maker, once said something very relevant in relation to all that we are discussing here (and I paraphrase): “I have always been on the side of those who seek the truth, but I part ways with them when they think they have found it” (the same idea has been attributed to many wise people including Vaclav Havel – “Seek the company of those who search for truth, but run from those who find it ” – and Andre Gide – “Love those who seek the truth, but doubt those who find it”). Perhaps what we need to fear most is people who believe they have found the “truth” because they invariably seek to impose the “truth” on everyone else. Does this desire to impose the “truth” confirm a commitment to democracy or individual liberty? Of course not.

Moreover, did you hear the story about the Palestinian poet in Saudi Arabia who has been condemned to death for renouncing Islam? In other words, the poet is condemned to death for apostasy. Square this with sura 2 verse 256 of the Qur’an which says, “There is no compulsion in religion.” Is critical evaluation of the Qur’an required by Muslims? Yes, and now. And I am sure some of you will join me in assisting our Muslim friends and neighbours with the task of such critical evaluation.

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

And they slaughtered the innocent (the story with no end)

Please help me, I’m confused. My Muslim friends tell me that Islam is a religion of peace, but…

Mosque, Bradford

Mosque, Bradford, United Kingdom

This is the first post deriving from someone other than myself. I have been asked by the author to withhold his name (the author is male), which I am more than willing to do (we live in dangerous times). Although I do not agree with everything the post contains, it is well argued and draws convincingly on evidence that currently exists, so to exclude it from the blog would be most unfair (if for no other reason than in the interests of responsible free speech, as outlined in the blog’s “About” page). Moreover, because the post derives from someone who is NOT Muslim but keen to ensure that a positive image of Islam is generated at a time when negative images are widespread, publication is of even greater merit. So here goes.

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

Mosque, Elazig, Turkey

It is a very difficult time for many of my Muslim friends, all of whom are peace-loving people who have extended the hand of companionship to a non-Muslim of doubtful moral integrity. My Muslim friends hear almost every day about people describing themselves as Muslims who engage in warfare in many parts of the globe, often against co-religionists of a sect or a schism that is different to their own. Such warfare is often accompanied by the brutal persecution of non-Muslims, threats of genocide against so-called “infidels” or “unbelievers”, the beheading of journalists or aid workers assisting innocent people caught in the crossfire, the exploitation of non-Muslim girls and women as sex slaves, and the denial of rights and opportunities to Muslim girls and women, even to Muslim girls and women who belong to the same sect or schism as that of the (overwhelmingly male) armed combatants.

Understandably, my friends say that the warlike stereotypes of Islam that have emerged in the non-Muslim world in the last decade or so do not represent “true” Islam and that Islam is really a “peaceful” religion. They tell me that the very name “Islam” means “peace” and that no “true” or “real” Muslim would engage in the sort of warfare or brutal actions outlined above. I know for a fact that none of my Muslim friends would engage in such warfare or actions, but evidence from around the world confirms that such warfare and actions are deemed right, or morally acceptable, by many Muslims. Moreover, such Muslims find it easy to justify such warfare and actions by a selective reading of the Qur’an and/or a selective reading of the Hadith.

Harvesting apricots, Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Harvesting apricots, Gunduzbey, near Malatya, Turkey

Before progressing further, let’s get a couple of things straight so we can engage in a dispassionate but informed manner with the content of the post. First, strictly speaking, the Arabic name “Islam” means “submission”, and all Muslims I know, no matter the sect or schism to which they belong, agree that submission relates to the will of God/Allah alone. The name “Islam” derives from the term “aslama”, which means “to surrender” or “to resign oneself”. To submit, surrender or resign oneself to anything other than the will of God/Allah is to engage in a forbidden practice, in something Muslims define as haram. The Arabic word for “peace” is “salaam”, which, although etymologically related to “Islam” and “aslama”, is nonetheless different from both. Some of my Muslim friends tell me that Islam is a religion which, in its essence, requires that people submit to the will of God/Allah AND promote peace, but, strictly speaking, to say that Islam equates with peace is misleading.

Second, if Islam IS a religion of peace, why are the Qur’an and the Hadith replete with references to war, conflict and information about the lesser jihad (“jihad” means “struggle” or “striving”. The lesser jihad is the struggle or striving against real or imagined external enemies, which often leads to conflict or war and, in some instances at least, to the defeat of those described as enemies of Islam), and why is it that, even in official histories about the emergence of Islam under Muhammad and the first four caliphs (successors) who followed him, war and conflict were almost constant? And why is it that war and conflict included the great battle at Kerbala/Karbala in Iraq (680 CE/61 AH), a battle which in many respects cemented the often fratricidal division between Sunni and Shia Muslims which persists to this day?

Third, reflect on the depressing information below extracted from a diary entry of mine from 2014:

It is 4th August and commemorations are taking places in many European locations, Belgium in particular, to mark the start of world war one a hundred years ago. The commemorations are very dignified as former enemies remember the dead of all nations in an enviably even-handed manner, a manner confirming that now, in most parts of Europe at least, war between what are now friendly nations is almost inconceivable. I confess: I am moved by a lot of what I see.

But world war one was meant to be the war which ended all war because the death and destruction, most of it of little or no strategic value in the long-term, would remind those tempted to engage in conflict to say, “Never again.” However, the last hundred years have seen far too many wars and conflicts to list, the second world war included, and, today, war and conflict afflict sixty-four nation states/territories (for more information about this, see the informative website entitled “Wars in the World”) including Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Dagestan, Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmur, Pakistan, Philippines, Thailand, Columbia and Mexico.

One of the most worrying aspects of the list of places where war and conflict are currently taking place is that, in over half the places listed, people who allege that they are Muslims are on at least one of the competing sides and sometimes on both (indeed, in some cases people who say that they are Muslims represent three, four or even five competing groups in the same war or conflict. This is most obvious in Syria and Iraq).

What are we to conclude from the above? First, that war and conflict remain at least as common as a hundred years ago (and, of course, that war and conflict are potentially far more costly in terms of human life and environmental destruction due to advances in armaments technology). Second, Muslims are engaged in a disproportionate number of wars and conflicts world-wide, suggesting that, as in the distant past, religion can still operate in such as way as to be a divisive and destructive force in society at large.

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Muslim Cemetery, Mardin, Turkey

Now: I would be the first to say that, in some instances, Muslims have good reason to engage in war and conflict, particularly where they are the unquestioned victims of injustice, discrimination, disadvantage or persecution. But in many of the places where Muslims are engaged in war and conflict they are fighting against co-religionists alone, and they are often inspired by a desire to eradicate such co-religionists because they belong to a Muslim sect or schism they define as heretical. Moreover, whether fighting against co-religionists or not, they too often seek to create conditions in which injustice, discrimination, disadvantage or persecution exist for others, which necessarily compromises what just cause may have provoked war or conflict in the first place.

I am therefore a very confused person. My friends believe Islam is a peaceful religion, I have always been told it’s a peaceful religion and I have travelled to some predominantly Muslim nation states where peace DOES prevail. As a general rule, things are excellent in those peaceful Muslim nation states, especially if you are Muslim rather than non-Muslim, male rather than female, heterosexual rather than gay or lesbian, or able-bodied rather than disabled (sadly, if you are non-Muslim, female, gay, lesbian or disabled in predominantly Muslim nation states, you are accorded rights and opportunities that are fewer and less comprehensive than those that exist for Muslims, males, heterosexuals or the able-bodied. Also, in some Muslim nation states, homosexuality is punishable by death).

I have read the Qur’an and the Hadith extensively (albeit in translation) and know that verses in the former and statements in the latter are supportive of peace, but there are far more verses in the Qur’an and statements in the Hadith that address war and conflict. What I need is a well-informed Muslim scholar (or a non-Muslim scholar who is well-informed about Muslim scripture, tradition and history) to explain how such a discrepancy can exist between my friends’ perception of Islam as a peaceful religion and how things look in reality.

Annual "Discover Islam Exhibition", University of Newcastle

Annual “Discover Islam” Exhibition, University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

I have recently been advised by a friend engaged in interfaith dialogue in North-East England that people at one of the region’s mosques have gone to great trouble to find posters which seek to challenge the perception that Islam is a warlike religion (people at the mosque hope that non-Muslim houses of worship will display the posters to combat such perceptions of Islam). One problem with the posters is that they rely on misconceptions or simplifications about Islamic scripture and the history of Islam. For this reason, the posters are little more than a well-intentioned gesture awash with platitudes that do not stand up to scrutiny. Moreover, any young Muslim who, for whatever reason, is increasingly disillusioned with life in Britain and susceptible to the Islamist/Salafist/jihadist propaganda that circulates in such quantity on the internet, is likely to look upon such posters as just so much hot air generated by Muslims willing to collaborate with the Crusader West in its efforts to undermine Islamic influence globally.

Don’t get me wrong: the posters could be of some value, but only if the people who put them together address some of the matters I raise above (“Islam” means “submission” and not “peace”. Where are quotes from the Qur’an and the Hadith to confound the notion that Islamic scripture is top-heavy with references to war, conflict, persecution of non-Muslims and death for “infidels” and apostates? Why is it that Muslims, and not, e.g., Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, Buddhists, atheists or agnostics, are disproportionately engaged in war and conflict around the globe, and, in many instances, engaged in war and conflict with their confessional brothers and sisters?).

Is the problem simply this, that many manifestations of mainstream Sunni Islam have been hijacked by the bad guys? I know dozens of wonderful Sunni Muslims in the UK and elsewhere and none of them are bad guys. And why do we hear so little from Shia Muslims? Sure, there are bad guys among Shia Muslims (in fact, there are bad guys in every group subscribing to religion or a secular belief system), but, as a rule, I have found that Shia Muslims are more pragmatic than Sunni Muslims because Sunni Muslims are urged to interpret the Qur’an and the Hadith literally (Shia Muslims are encouraged to believe that scripture contains hidden meanings that are at least as important as its explicit meanings). In fact, literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the Hadith is a requirement of Sunni Islam.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that scripture IS taken literally by too many Muslims. And yet it is well established among Muslims that the qur’anic revelations which derive from Muhammad’s time in Makkah have a very different tone and quality to the far more detailed and legalistic revelations which derive from his time spent in Medina. Moreover, later revelations can replace those of earlier derivation, perhaps if the earlier revelations are not fit for purpose or prone to ambiguous interpretation (this is known by the Arabic name of “naskh”, which is usually translated to mean “abrogation”).

Of course there are many millions of Muslims who ARE peace-loving, but we hear their voices far too rarely. Such Muslims include most members of the many Sufi groups and the Ahmadiyya. But guess what? Sufi and Ahmaddiya Muslims are condemned as heretics by many Sunni Muslims and some Shia Muslims. Yes: the Muslims most likely to commit to peace are persecuted by fellow Muslims. Should we laugh or cry?

Come on: help my friends persuade the non-Muslim world that Islam is a peace-loving religion. I’m not anticipating that a case can be made that “true” Muslims are indistinguishable from pacifists such as the Jains, the Mennonites, the Amish or the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers (in common with most people on the planet, Muslims included, I believe that situations exist in which war and conflict are necessary evils, but only under the strictest of conditions), but surely we can present a persuasive case that will confound the messages emanating from that vocal minority of extremist/very violent Muslims who seem to glory in death, destruction and/or the persecution of those more vulnerable than they. However, any such case must begin by utilising Islamic scripture itself because it’s Islamic scripture which inspires groups such as ISIS, Boko Haram and the Taliban to persist with their outrageous crimes against humanity.

Islamic calligraphy

Islamic calligraphy