Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author, essayist and public speaker. Follow him @hsmoghul. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Haroon Moghul: By reading Quran passages selectively, isolated from their context, ISIS creates justification for murderous agenda
He says ISIS views mainstream, pluralistic Muslims as pagans, infidels. Muslims must understand root of distortions to fight back
We must build communities in which extremists cannot find a foothold, let alone a launching pad, to take their terror to the ends of the Earth. I don’t mean to say Muslims are collectively or personally responsible. But I also can’t tolerate the idea that we don’t have a problem.
ISIS believes itself to be Islamic. The group is Muslim, after all. Members quote from our scripture. They claim to act in our name. They kill in the name of our faith. And they seek to recruit their murderers from our communities, even and perhaps especially in the West.
If American Muslims are going to fight back, we have to pay attention to their claims. If we do, we find that ISIS isn’t just at war with much of the world, or, especially, the Muslim world. The Islamic State is at war with how Muslims understand Islam.
And let me be clear here: They represent a mortal danger to Islam.
Whenever I teach on Islam, inevitably someone asks, “Well, what about such-and-such verse of the Quran?” The fact is, the people who argue about Islam using isolated verses of the Quran alone are usually Islamophobes or Islamic extremists.
I’m more concerned by the latter.
Aftermath of Paris terror attacks
You see, if someone cites a passage from the Quran, they have not proved much beyond their ability to cite a passage from the Quran. This should be obvious: A verse from the Quran no more tells you what Islam believes than a few sentences from the Bible defines Christianity.
But this is also true for Islam: Historically, Muslims never read verses of the Quran in isolation, nor did our religious scholars use verses alone to make or break arguments. That would very quickly end in deadlock.
The reason there are schools of Islamic law, no centralized authority in Islam, and so much debate and discussion between Muslims is because the premise where traditional Muslim scholars regularly begin is one that jihadists, and many Islamists, cannot abide:
The Quran contradicts itself. The Prophet Mohammed said conflicting things.
Merely citing what the Quran says, or what Mohammed taught, say doesn’t mean much, since the Quran and Mohammed often appear to offer conflicting advice.
How you make sense of a vast corpus of texts – intended for different situations and different contexts, anchored to different points in Mohammed’s life, reflecting the circumstances of a small, 7th-century Arabian city – requires years of deep learning, debate and a willingness to admit that we might be wrong.None of which ISIS is interested in.
In ISIS’ Islam, there’s only black and white. Every text has just one meaning, and it’s the meaning they prefer. In fact, in the terrorist group’s reading, religion itself can only have one form, which is why ISIS might frequently invoke the Quran, but only the parts of it that support their extremist views.
Don’t misunderstand my saying so: There’s violence in the Quran, in the Islamic tradition, and in Islamic history. To deny that would be ridiculous.
But there are many more passages in the Quran that condemn violence, that note that God gives people the freedom to choose their faith, that it is not our job to impose religion on others, that killing a single innocent person is the same as killing every person. These verses are, however, nowhere to be found in ISIS propaganda. The group reads Islam selectively.
And it does so in a way most Muslims reject. ISIS’ response to the pluralism of mainstream Islam is to describe all of us as “pagans,” “infidels” or “collateral damage.” To refuse to confront the challenge this presents openly and vigorously isn’t just cowardly, it’s suicidal.
In responding, moreover, we might look to the original sources of Islam itself to back us up.
Islam’s end-times literature is just as confusing as that of any other religion’s, but what’s fascinating about Islam’s version is how much it focuses on the terrible evil that will come not just from people of religion but of the Islamic faith.
Mohammed warned his followers that a people would arise “who read Quran,” who would be more religiously observant than any around, but that “nothing of Islam would go past their throats” – that is, they would talk the talk, but never walk the walk. In fact Mohammed described them not only as “the worst of all people, but the worst of all creation.” Harsh words, but notice who they’re applied to.
Sometimes the worst evil, Islam warns, comes from within.
Traditional Islam embraced pluralism, because it recognized religious literature does not admit to a single interpretation. ISIS’ Islam is opposed to pluralism, not just in the wider world, but within Islam itself. To murderous ends.
To defend ourselves from this heresy, Muslims could start with this easy admission: While religion can help improve us, it can also turn into a source of hubris, pride and even oppression. It’s not just obvious from my own experience and observation, but it’s right there in the Muslim scripture.