Tuesday, 9 June 2009

"No Compulsion In Religion" And Other Islamic Apologetics (Part 1)


When confronted with the reality of Islam's violent doctrines and history, it is understandable that many Muslims may wish to downplay these truths or attempt refute the arguments of Westerners who subject the Qur'an and Islamic tradition to critical scrutiny. These Muslims' apologetics are, in turn, taken up even by non-Muslims who simply repeat calumnies and half-truths without question.

This three-part series of posts will deal with some of the most common Muslim apologetics, which lead to a dangerous whitewashing of Islamic doctrine and history, and demonstrate why they are insufficient to excuse Islam of the serious problems inherent in its traditional makeup and orthodoxy.


Perhaps the most common argument against the notion that traditional Islam sanctions violence against and the subjugation of unbelievers is the “cherry-picking” argument. This asserts that certain verses of the Qur'an have been taken “out of context” to make the Qur'an appear violent, while all the more peaceful and tolerant verses have been ignored.

At first glance, this would appear to be a valid point. As well as verses mandating violence and intolerance, the Qur'an also contains some passages towards which no one could have any reasonable objections. For example, a number of verses promote co-existence and dialogue with non-Muslims:

16:125 – “Invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance.”

29:46 – “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, 'We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).'”

109:1-6 – “Say: O disbelievers! I worship not that which ye worship; Nor worship ye that which I worship. And I shall not worship that which ye worship. Nor will ye worship that which I worship. Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion.”

There are also passages which seem to say that Muslims should only wage war in self-defense:

22:39-40 – “Sanction is given unto those who fight because they have been wronged; and Allah is indeed Able to give them victory; Those who have been driven from their homes unjustly only because they said: Our Lord is Allah - For had it not been for Allah's repelling some men by means of others, cloisters and churches and oratories and mosques, wherein the name of Allah is oft mentioned, would assuredly have been pulled down. Verily Allah helpeth one who helpeth Him. Lo! Allah is Strong, Almighty.”

2:190 – “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors.”

However, failing to mention these and other such verses is not a matter of simply cherry-picking the worst parts of the Qur'an in order to make Islam look bad; rather, it is in line with mainstream Islamic theology, as enunciated by the greatest Muslim scholars and commentators.

It is a traditional Islamic belief that the Prophet Muhammad revealed verses about warfare in three stages over the course of his career: first non-violence, then defensive war, then offensive war to submit the entire world to Islam. The Prophet's earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq (d.773), was the first to articulate this. At first, he says, Muhammad “had not been given permission to fight or allowed to shed blood. He had simply been ordered to call men to God and to endure insult and forgive the innocent.” But when Muhammad's circumstances changed, Allah “gave permission to His apostle to fight and to protect himself against those who wronged them and treated them badly.” Eventually, “God sent down to him: 'Fight them so that there be no more seduction', i.e. until no believer is seduced from his religion. 'And the religion is God's,' i.e. until God alone is worshiped.”

This view has been reaffirmed by many Muslim scholars throughout history. The prolific modern commentator Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) approvingly invokes an earlier authority, Ibn Qayyim (d.1350), to make the same point: “Muslims were first restrained from fighting...then they were commanded to fight against the aggressors; and finally they were commanded to fight against all the polytheists.” He also concludes that “[a]fter the period of the Prophet, only the final stages of the movement of jihad are to be followed; the initial or middle stages are not applicable”.

In other words, according to Ibn Ishaq, Qutb and many others, the Qur'anic verses which speak of tolerance, or of warfare only in self-defense, were applicable only in the particular stage of Muhammad's life during which they were revealed, while the final stage, of offensive warfare to submit unbelievers to the authority of Islam, is applicable now and for all time.

Related to this evolving concept of war in the Qur'an is the doctrine of naskh, or abrogation. This is the idea that Allah sometimes replaces a particular directive from the Qur'an with another one, which then becomes normative for Muslims following its revelation, canceling out the earlier prescriptions. It is based on the Qur'an itself: “Whatever communications We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, We bring one better than it or like it. Do you not know that Allah has power over all things?” (2:106)

The famous Muslim historian and exegete Tabari (d.923) defines abrogation as “what God abrogates regarding the precept of a verse which He changes, or for which He substitutes another, so that what is lawful may become unlawful and and what is unlawful may become lawful; what is permitted may become prohibited and what is prohibited may become permitted.” Sayyid Qutb maintains that “partial amendment of rulings in response to changing circumstances during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad could only be in the interest of mankind as a whole.” Another influential commentator, Qurtubi (d.1273), states bluntly that “no one can deny abrogation except the ignorant and the dull-headed.”

The doctrine of abrogation is of particular importance in understanding one of the Qur'an's most violent verses, known in Islamic theology as the Verse of the Sword: “Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wherever ye find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush. But if they repent and establish worship and pay the poor-due, then leave their way free. Lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (9:5)

The prominent Qur'anic commentator Ibn Kathir (d.1373) quotes several authorities, including Muhammad's cousin Ibn Abbas (d.687), to assert that the Verse of the Sword “abrogated every agreement of peace between the Prophet and any idolater, every treaty and every term...No idolater had any more treaty or promise of safety ever since Surah Bara'ah [the ninth chapter of the Qur'an] was revealed.” Another scholar, Ibn Juzayy (d.1357), agrees – 9:5 abrogates “every peace treaty in the Qur’an”, and specifically abrogates 47:4’s directive to “set free or ransom” captive unbelievers. According to al-Suyuti (d.1505), “[t]his is an Ayat [verse] of the Sword which abrogates pardon, truce and overlooking”. The Spanish Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi (d.1148) stated that “[t]he Verse of the Sword, 9:5, has abrogated 124 verses of the Qur'an”.

None of this means that such understandings of the Qur'an are correct, or that Muslims who disagree with them are necessarily wrong. But it is nevertheless clear that these interpretations are not “radical” but mainstream and orthodox, and that modern jihadists therefore have a theologically legitimate strain of tradition to draw upon when trying to convince other Muslims that they represent “true” Islam.

Thus far, they have been successful in these efforts.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon...

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