An Open Letter to Atheist Muslims – or – Is The Quran A Violent Text Or Is Your Reading A Tad Off?

Dear Self Described Atheist Muslims,

Let’s start with what I am not going to do.

I am not going to accuse you of never knowing anything about Islam. Most of you have grown up in Muslim families, attended Muslim Sunday school, gone to Muslim summer camp, etc. You know the drill and the day to day of what many Muslims experience, especially in a communal sense. Also, I will not accuse you of being sympathetic to the bigotry and hatred projected towards Muslims. Despite your self-declared apostasy and atheism, I am sure that when you are in line in the airport, pulled over for a minor traffic violation, or opening an account at a bank, you are wholly identified as an “other” and your “Muslimy” name doesn’t help you in the least. I get it. You are still, like it or not, culturally tied to the community that you have identified with much of your life, despite now rejecting the faith that that community holds dear.

A number of Assumptions

There are several of you who have written on this topic. See here, here, and here. You say you want to help. I am sure you do. Your advice to Muslims that label themselves as “Moderate” can be summarized in a few bullet points:

  • Muslims believe in the Quran as “God’s literal word” and this you say needs to stop
  • Muslims claim that the Quran is misinterpreted, while terrorist groups around the world use the same text to justify violence; this you claim, shows that something is missing.
  • Claims that the Quran contains metaphor, allegory, and is an interpreted document are just unacceptable, because unless all Muslims around the world accept these interpretations, then no one can accept them.
  • The only way past all of this is to admit that the Quran is an errant document, can be changed or discarded, and for Muslims to adhere not to an ideological identity but instead to a community identity.

I will not engage in appeals to emotion by waxing poetic on my background growing up as a Muslim. You know “as a distraught teen, I never X. Then I did, and my life changed because then I could Y, which lead me to Z…” all the while peppering the conversation with where I’ve lived and all of the random factoids on how Muslims around the world revere the Quran unrelated to the topic at hand that I know about. We get all that, because you’ve already said you identified with Muslims as a community of people.

What I do want to talk to you about is your propensity to conflate your years, if not months, in Sunday schools around the world as some form of expertise on Islamic thought, theology, and scripture. Clearly, by mere frequency of mentioning that you’ve attended Sunday school, or that you’ve lived in a Muslim Majority country (extra points if you mention the KSA or the UAE) you are more than well qualified to speak about issues that members of other faiths reserve for clergy, subject matter experts, and seminarians. This is something that many of you are not in the least qualified to do. In fact if having lived in the Middle East is somehow indicative of your familiarity with Muslim doctrine, scriptural veracity, and its theological underpinnings, then living and studying there makes one more than qualified to comment on these issues. So at risk of sounding condescending and/or vain, I must state for the record that I am qualified to speak on issues of interpretation of religious texts. I have an undergraduate degree in “Shariah and Islamic Studies” from the Islamic University of Medina. I hold a Master of Islamic Law degree from the same university. I have studied in faculty and privately with scholars, professors, and experts from around the Muslim world. I did say at the beginning that I’m not going to accuse you of never knowing anything about Islam. You do know something. But I will say that this one thing, namely Quranic interpretation, is something you severely lack expertise in to put it politely. You’ve based a lot of what you’ve said on several assumptions. Let’s talk about the assumptions above and some of the issues related to them.

Who speaks for Islam

Who really speaks for Islam? This is a crucial question when we talk about interpreting religious texts. We hear it all the time: Muslims do not have formal clergy. This is a true statement, well at least in part. It does not take into consideration that “clergy” is a term with considerable cultural baggage, namely the sacerdotal function of the priesthood in Christianity. By sacerdotal I mean “relating to or denoting a doctrine that ascribes sacrificial functions and spiritual or supernatural powers to ordained priests.” So yes, Muslim Imams and scholars are not imbued with supernatural powers, although they do fulfill a function in the community. Some of those functions are merely pastoral in nature, while others are scholarly and interpretive. The Muslim “Shaikh” or religious scholar is probably a lot closer in concept to the Jewish Rabbi than he is to the Catholic priest. Depending upon where he is in his studies and the role he fills in any given community, he may be a bit of a chaplain and counselor as well.

In the end of the day, there is a broad self-regulating body of scholars that parse issues of interpretation and applicability to any given context. They are sometimes known as Muftis, Shaikhs, and as Imams (although this latter title is paradoxically reserved in Islamic circles for functional community prayer leaders as well as paragons of spiritual and juristic leadership).

The Dilemma of Interpretive Egalitarianism 

We are faced with a dilemma when talking about interpretation: Either everyone’s interpretation is valid or it isn’t. If it is, then in reality regardless of whether Muslims call themselves “moderate” or not, your opinion of them and what they believe really matters very, very little in the large scheme of things. If everyone’s interpretation, on the other hand, is not valid, then there must be some qualifications for engaging in interpretation. I’d go on about the qualifications for those involved in interpretation of texts, but the details of that are beyond this article. The least we can say is that when someone makes a claim about the application of a verse to a particular context, the uninitiated will almost always ask “Is she qualified to do so?” much like when a person advises you to undergo a medical procedure the uninitiated will ALWAYS ask “Is she qualified to do so?” So if there are those that are qualified, through years of study to speak on the interpretation of the Quran and its application to a given context, then again your opinion and what they believe in reality matters very, very little in the large scheme of things.

We seem to be at an impasse then. If we can no longer juxtapose our personal ideas of what the Quran says against the average “Moderate” Muslim, what are we supposed to do? We aren’t referencing scholarly opinion to validate our personal ideas about what the Quran says. In this case, how are we to know if the root cause is as stated again and again: the moderate Muslim’s inability to recognize scriptural inerrancy? In other words, the Quran makes people “Kookoo for Cocoa Puffs” crazy, so why won’t they just give it up?

Is the Quran a “violent text”?

Before we talk about reconsidering the infallibility of the Quran, let’s talk a little about the idea that the Quran justifies violence and is the catalyst for violence in the Muslim community. A recent Pew study showed that when asked about violence against individual civilians is justified, about 23% of respondents in 15 Muslim majority countries said that it can often or sometimes be justified. Crazy right! I know, it’s a shocker. But what is even more shocking, is when respondents from the US, Canada, East and Western Europe were asked a similar question, 24% of all respondents said the same thing. What is that allows a large segment of the Western world to allow (even if only sometimes and in certain situations) violence against individual civilians? Is it the Quran? Certainly not. Is it the Bible? Highly doubtful. Is it popular media? Not sure. Could it be some other combination of factors? Possibly, but let’s leave that to statisticians and political scientists. We can only judge based on results. So far, violence and/or support for violence against individuals among all populations regardless of religion or region seem roughly split 25%/75%.

“God’s literal word” and the Quran as an errant document

Do Muslims believe the Quran to be God’s “literal” word? Yes and No. Yes, in the sense that the Quran is seen as representing the exact words of the original text as revealed by God. And No, in the sense that the Quran is not a book that is devoid of metaphor and allegory. What would be more correct then is to say that Muslims believe the Quran to be “God’s immutable word” because they believe it to be unchanging over time and unable to be changed.

I know, I know. You say that even this change in definition is not enough. You say the Quran is used by violent terrorists, and “Moderate Muslim” claims of the Quran being misinterpreted just don’t cut it. Even if “Moderate Muslims” accept their own interpretations, until all Muslims around the world accept these interpretations, then they are useless. But the Quran is written in a human language, and languages do not work the way that you want them to. They are ambiguous, equivocal, and indefinite at times. One word may have several meanings. One sentence may mean numerous things when read in or out of context. A group of sentences may be stated in a certain context or time, then no longer be applicable. The author of those sentences may include them for historical value, but not make them effective or part of the story line. All of these topics are included in the disciplines studied to interpret the Quran, because all of these topics are inherent to understanding language.

“Strike [them] upon the necks”

Therefore, when I read in the Quran “so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip” I naturally say “Wow that sounds really bad!” But when I back up and read the ENTIRE verse, and see that the verse begins with a conjunction

“When your Lord inspired to the angels, “I am with you, so strengthen those who have believed. I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip”

then immediately calls the reader’s attention to God’s command to a group of angels, not men. For the rational, fair-minded individual who understands what function language plays in speech, he should immediately realize that

  1. A) this verse is not speaking to me or any other human, and
  2. B) the conjunction is for “…tying up words and phrases and clauses. (here’s a link if you forgot)

Because of the conjunction, he will read a few verses before this to see what the overall context is, and find out what this is referring to. Earliest exegetes of the Quran state that this is referring to Angelic assistance to the Prophet and Believers during the Battle of Badr.

Yes, you don’t have to believe that this took place. And you certainly don’t have to believe in Angels, God, Angelic military forces, or anything of the sort. However what you do have to do is allow language to function the way it is supposed to. Allow texts to speak without projecting a particular meaning on to them detached from the text and the context. You claim that Moderate Muslims aid bigots by not accepting the Quran as fallible, and thus fall into the same category as the “extremists” who also believe the Quran to be immutable.

Perversion of Texts for Political Gain

What you fail to recognize is that you have projected an extra-textual meaning (the general use of violence in this case) onto a verse revealed about and speaking directly to an incident in medieval history (angelic hosts attending a medieval battle). Even if we do not accept the exegesis provided in the link above tying this to the Battle of Badr, the language of the verse is clear. This is not a general exhortation to commit violence in the name of religion. None of us are angels (literally or figuratively).

The problem here is two-fold: You have not contextualized. You have not interpreted. You have not even allowed language to function as it should. Because the plain language composing this verse and surrounding it does not denote general, wanton violence against individuals. What you have done is misrepresented and perverted a text by injecting shallow meaning into a verse which aligns itself with your preferred construing of this text. In this case, that objective would be the necessity to reject it due to a perceived command to commit violence. This is outside of what the text and context actually denote, but if that allows you to appeal to your idea of the Quran as errant, so be it. This is not only disingenuous, it is the same thing that extremists do to bend texts to justify their use for violence. This is but one example of why the words we use, how we use them, and how we read them matter. There are many, many other examples of this, not just in the Quran but even in our own expressions and speech.

What Is The Problem?

Immutability is not the problem. Unqualified interpretation is. Those that take dichromatic stances as to what the Quran means are extremists. To solve these problems we need to let languages and interpretive disciplines function as they are designed. I find it telling that the shallow misinterpretations of religious and irreligious extremists almost always lead to one thing: the escalation of conflict and the promotion of violence, instead of leading to dialogue and mutual understanding.

 

Image from JPAllen, Flickr. labeled for reuse with modification.

 

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