Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Middle East Eye: Blind to the Truth About Jihad (Part 1)

In his book Inside Jihad, Muslim reformer Dr. Tawfik Hamid argues that the best way for Muslims to re-interpret the Qur'an's most violent passages, in a way that will militate against their capacity to incite to violence, is to "preach the importance of 'al-' ('the')". Hamid's argument is that the use of the Arabic word "al" in the Qur'an changes the context of verses which appear to sanction violence against unbelievers.

For example, the Quran never employs the universal article “mn” in its verses about jihad against non-believers, but almost always employs “al", meaning "the". Mn kafar would mean “infidels” in the universal sense, while al-kafireen means “the infidels” – a more specific designation. Thus, there is a big difference between killing mn kafar and killing al-kafireen, in the same way that in English, "kill infidels" and "kill the infidels" can have different meanings: one signifies all infidels, the other - through the presence of the word "the" - signifies that the verse is talking about someone specific, namely the infidels that existed at the time of the verse's revelation, and not all infidels throughout space and time. Therefore, Muslims today should not fight and kill infidels, since only a specific group from the past is being referred to in this verse.

It's an interesting approach to the text, albeit one that is not shared by the vast majority of Muslims. And regardless of any concerns I may have about it as an argument, the thing that worries me most of all is that the vast majority of Islamic apologetics never even reach this level of sophistication.

An example of this can be seen in a piece published this weekend at the Middle East Eye, entitled "When is it permissible to fight in Islam?", which tries to appear like a balanced examination of a complex issue, but really just provides us with standard counter-factual baloney that anyone with any real acquaintance with the Islamic sources can see through immediately.

It starts off by pointing out that there are some verses in the Qur'an that appear to sanction offensive warfare against infidels, while others, such as the one below, appear to allow it only in self-defense:

Permission to take up arms is hereby given to those who are attacked because they have been oppressed – Allah indeed has power to grant them victory – those who have been unjustly driven from their homes, only because they said: "Our Lord is Allah" (22:39-40)

This is indeed true, but it then moves straight on to a discussion of offensive jihad, implying that any "extremist" who would argue that jihad should be an offensive struggle to propagate Islam is just disingenuously ignoring passages like the one above.

What the piece completely ignores is that Islam has always had a built-in mechanism to cope with contradictions like this: abrogation.

It is a traditional Islamic belief that there are three stages in the Qur’anic revelation concerning jihad: first non-violence, then defensive war, then offensive war to submit the entire world to Islam. Muhammad’s earliest biographer, Ibn Ishaq (d.773), was the first to articulate this. At first, he says, the Prophet “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.”

In other words, according to Ibn Ishaq, and many other prominent scholars of Islamic history, the Qur'anic verses which speak of tolerance, or of warfare only in self-defense, were only applicable at the time they were initially revealed, while the final stage, of offensive warfare to submit unbelievers to the authority of Islam, is applicable now and for all time.

This is where abrogation comes in. This is the idea that some directives in the Qur'an have been cancelled out by others. 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 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, 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.” The Spanish Muslim scholar Ibn al-Arabi (d.1148) taught that the Verse of the Sword abrogated 124 more peaceful verses of the Qur'an.

The failure to mention any of this throughout the article allows the author to pretend that those who claim that jihad is something more than just self-defense are simply ignoring inconvenient texts. In actual fact, they are just following the traditional Islamic exegetical method of contextualising the Qur'an's commands.

The piece then cites the influential Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) as an example of someone who believes the Qur'an sanctions offensive jihad. As it notes, Qutb cited the following Qur'anic verse in support of this idea:

Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay the Jizya [non-Muslim poll tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued. (9:29)

The author wants us to believe that Qutb just plucked this verse out of context and is therefore understanding it erroneously. But he makes no mention of the fact that Qutb himself invoked abrogation as part of his reasoning. In his book Milestones (the same book this piece is discussing), Qutb approvingly invokes an earlier authority, Ibn Qayyim (d.1350), to make the point that there was a gradual development in the conception of jihad in the Qur'an: “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”.

Since this article did not mention this, even to argue against it, it is clearly unsatisfactory and incompetent as an attempt to factually examine the evidence.

It gets worse when it cites Mahmud Shaltut, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar from the late 1950s, writing of this same verse: "If this verse had meant that they [non–believers] must be fought because of their unbelief and that unbelief had been the reason why they should be fought, then it would have been laid down that the aim of fighting consisted in their conversion to Islam. Collecting poll taxes from them would not have been allowed in that case and they would not have been allowed to abide by their own religion."

Despite Shaltut's prominence in Islamic circles at this time, this statement appears to be woefully ignorant of centuries of Islamic tradition explaining the purpose of jihad in Islam. In fact, we can turn once against to Shaltut's contemporary, Sayyid Qutb, for a clear explanation. The following comes from Qutb's widely-read multi-volume commentary on the Qur'an:

As the only religion of truth that exists on earth today, Islam takes appropriate action to remove all physical and material obstacles that try to impede its efforts to liberate mankind from submission to anyone other than God... 
The practical way to ensure the removal of those physical obstacles while not forcing anyone to adopt Islam is to smash the power of those authorities based on false beliefs until they declare their submission and demonstrate this by paying the submission tax. When this happens, the process of liberating mankind is completed by giving every individual the freedom of choice based on conviction. Anyone who is not convinced may continue to follow his faith. However, he has to pay the submission tax to fulfil a number of objectives... 
[B]y paying this tax, known as jizya, he declares that he will not stand in physical opposition to the efforts advocating the true Divine faith.

So in Qutb's view - which did not originate with him, but which existed for centuries before him - the purpose of jihad as delineated in Qur'an 9:29, at least regarding Jews and Christians, is not to force them to accept Islam, but rather to force them to accept the Islamic legal system, relegating them to dhimmi status and payment of the jizya if they refuse to convert. But if they do convert, they do so freely. Believe it or not, Qutb actually believed that this set-up was the most wonderfully tolerant way of going about inter-faith relations that anyone could ever dream up, and gushes repeatedly in his commentary that this proves the greatness and beneficence of Allah.

Lastly, we are told that Mahmud Shaltut asserted that "no single verse in the Qur'an exists that affirms conversion as an aim of fighting non-believers". This is flagrantly false, since we have already discussed one - the Sword Verse, 9:5, which commands Muslims to fight idolaters and pagans until they "establish worship and pay the poor-due" - that is, begin worshipping Allah and pay zakat, a charitable tax that is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The choice for them is either conversion or the sword. Ibn Kathir says of 9:5 that polytheists “have no choice, but to die or embrace Islam.” As I will demonstrate later, that is clearly not just his opinion.

More to follow in response to the Middle East Eye tomorrow...

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