Perhaps the most exciting outcome of my op-ed in USA Today are the responses and open discussion of the Quran’s teachings in popular news sources, including TIME Magazine, the Huffington Post, and a Patheos blog. Such public dialogue and discussion is the key to moving forward and addressing the roots of jihad.
In my article I propose that, “when everyday Muslims investigate the Quran and hadith (or sayings of the Muhammad) for themselves, bypassing centuries of tradition and their imams’ interpretations, they are confronted with the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations of their faith.” Nonetheless, I suggest that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful and innocent and should be received with friendship and love.
That is a very short digest of my recent book, Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward. In the opening chapter of that book, I describe why it took me years to come to this conclusion: I had always been taught Islam was a religion of peace and that Muhammad was a kind, peaceful man, in fact the most perfect who ever lived. It took years of studying the sources to move away from the interpretations that the imams in my denomination had taught me. Incidentally, those are the same imams who taught all three of the respondents above, as I grew up in the same sect of Islam that they are a part of. How is it that people can come to such differing conclusions about the person of Muhammad?
The answer has to do with the incredible number of traditions of Muhammad’s life. Although the Quran only mentions Muhammad by name four times, the body of literature known as hadith contain hundreds of thousands of accounts and anecdotes. These are not full narratives of Muhammad’s life, but discrete stories of specific events or sayings. Islamic tradition does also record narrative biographies of the life of Muhammad, and those are called sirah, but they hold a lesser place in the eyes of most Muslims.
Here is my point: when a Muslim gets his information about Muhammad directly from these sources, rather than from imams or traditions that selectively filter them, they have no alternative but to conclude that the life of Muhammad, and therefore the context of the Quran, culminates in violence.
Consider two well-known hadiths from the anthologies of Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, considered to be the two most authentic collections of hadith. In one,Muhammad says , “I will expel all the Jews and Christians from the Arabian peninsula and not leave any but Muslim.” In another, he says, “I have been ordered to fight against the people until they testify that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger... then they save their lives and property from me.” These authentic hadiths are illuminating when trying to understand the Quran’s commands to kill polytheists (9.5) and fight Jews and Christians (9.29-30). Muhammad was fighting people for their beliefs, not for their actions, with the intent to expel or convert. Only by going against the grain of Islamic tradition, deeming these traditions to be unreliable, can an investigator avoid the violence inherent in the origins of Islam.
When I was a Muslim, I tried my best to do exactly that, individually dismissing account after account of Muhammad’s violence. But after at least a hundred such accounts, I realized they were ubiquitous. Considering just one aspect of his life in tradition, his conduct with enemies, we find that Muhammad would invoke cursesupon them, encourage his men to compose insults and abusive poetry, on one occasion asking Allah to fill peoples’ homes with flames simply because they delayed the Muslims in their daily prayers.
When I asked various imams to explain these traditions, they could do so only by ignoring or dismissing all these traditions that record the historical context of the Quran, even though they come from the most authentic collection in Islamic tradition, Sahih Bukhari.
Similarly, while still a Muslim, I asked my peace-loving imams to explain the ancient biographies of Muhammad. In the earliest such biography, Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah we find that chapter 9 of the Quran is the last major chapter of the Quran to be composed, and its most expansively violent chapter. The biography gives the context of the Quranic verse that says “Slay the infidels wherever you find them” on pages 617-619. There it makes clear that not just the one tribe of polytheists who broke a treaty, but all polytheists would have to leave Arabia or be slaughtered. Those who had broken the treaty and shown hostility with Muslims “should be killed for it,” those who had a general truce with Muslims would be given four months, and those who had a treaty with Muslims for a set term would be allowed to complete their term, but after that they were at risk of being slain by the command of the Quran. This is not a bizarre or idiosyncratic interpretation, but the standard interpretation of classical Islam and many Muslim scholars today. It is the interpretation provided by a popular Pakistani commentator today, Taqi Usmani, which can be downloaded for free on the QuranExplorer app.
A few pages later, this earliest biography of Muhammad’s life explains why Muslims are told to “Fight the People of the Scripture (Jews and Christians)... until they pay the ransom tax and feel subdued.” The answer is given in the previous verse: the polytheists, now being expelled or slaughtered, would no longer be able to bring their trade to Mecca, and the Muslims were afraid of losing this income. The biography says that Jews and Christians would be made to pay the Muslims money, “as a compensation for what you (the Muslims) fear to lose by the closing of the markets.” (620) The justification for fighting the Jews and Christians is given in the next verse, 9.30: “The Jews say Ezra is the Son of God and the Christians say the Messiah is the Son of God... May Allah destroy them!” Once again, this is the clear reading of the words in the Quran, the biography supports it, classical Muslim scholars advocated it, and respected Muslim scholars today agree.
In fact, this interpretation is the only one that explains why Muslims had the impetus to fight one third of the known world immediately after Muhammad died. His final teachings, recorded in the Quran and hadith, led them to conquest from the shores of the Atlantic to the valleys of India, at times slaughtering even undefended cities, such as in the conquest of Nikiu, which occurred during the reign of Umar ibn al-Khattab, a man most Muslims think was divinely guided.
Once again, my imams dismissed the historical records and traditions, advising me to ignore them. Since these are the very sources that tell us about Muhammad, I cannot selectively ignore the portions I find problematic. When others do, though, my argument in the USA today article still stands: people have to filter the traditions to produce a peaceful Islam. When everyday Muslims investigate the Quran and hadith for themselves, without their imams filtering the traditions, they are confronted with the reality of violent jihad in the very foundations of their faith.
I am thankful that the respondents have opened the door for discussion, because that is the best way to finding a solution to the problem of radical Islam. In that spirit I invite all three of them to public dialogue, so that together we can find the best way of Answering Jihad.