How are we to understand violence in the Quran?

Cambridge, MA. I continue here my brief series on the Quran, how the new Study Quran can be an aid to interreligious understanding in the necessary battle against the twin evils of ignorance and violence. One might similarly look at The Jewish Study Bible, which includes the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh Translation, or The New Oxford Annotated Bible with Apocrypha. We need to be studying each other’s holy books, and we can, and we should.

It is important to remember that my concern here is the study of the holy book itself, rather than all the important contextual issues that must also be addressed. I admit, as always, that the study of the text does not replace other “infinite paths of learning”: the study of one’s own deepest self, the study of the surrounding social and political conditions and, finally, our unending encounter with God. The study of the text is only a small part of the larger wisdom required of us, but it is an irreplaceable part. That it is easy enough to do should shame those who refuse to actually study other religions before judging them. The Study Quran means that this vastly influential holy book is now more easily available for our study, open and ready, and my posts are meant to be examples of this study, by a reader who is not an expert on Islam.

In my last post, I reflected on the God of mercy, the compassionate and merciful Lord of whom we hear again and again in the Quran—and who is very much in the forefront of the consciousness of Catholics during Pope Francis’ Year of Mercy. I did intend now to move on to Mary and Jesus in the Quranic tradition but thought that perhaps skeptical readers would charge that I’d taken the easy path: Who can object to the idea that God is merciful? So I thought it wiser to stop for a moment to ask a difficult question: What then does the Quran say about violence?

One place to start is Caner Dagli’s masterful article in The Study Quran, “Conquest and Conversion, War and Peace in the Quran.” Citing key but disparate texts, Dagli reminds us that at various points in the Quran, the political context makes the teaching seem to incline toward peace or the taking up of arms. Each sura (chapter) and the key verses in each sura, need to be studied and read in context. While at a deep level the Quran is perfectly consistent, one cannot retrieve its teachings by citing just one passage or another.

But here I can consider just two passages. First, consider these verses in the second sura, “The Cow:”

God, there is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber overtakes Him nor sleep. Unto Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth. Who is there who may intercede with Him save by His leave? He knows that which is before them and that which is behind them. And they encompass nothing of His Knowledge, save what he wills. His Pedestal embraces the heavens and the earth. Protecting them tires Him not, and He is the Exalted, the Magnificent. There is no coercion in religion. Sound judgment has become clear from error. So whosoever disavows false deities and believes in God has grasped the most unfailing handhold, which never breaks. And God is Hearing, Knowing. God is the Protector of those who believe. He brings them out of darkness into the light. As for those who disbelieve, their protectors are the idols, bringing them out of the light into the darkness (2:255-257).

This magnificent passage will remind us of similarly lofty words in the Psalms or the Prophets of Israel, and we can benefit from meditation on them. Of course, we naturally seize upon the words, “No coercion in religion,” which seems to leave matters of faith and belonging in God’s hands. The children of the light and darkness are allowed to go their own way, by God’s mysterious will, and humans are not to interfere. Yes, the passage is also judgmental, speaking of false deities (any deity but the Lord) and idols (anything one worships as equal to God), and what is needed is a 21st-century Islamic theologies of religions.

The Study Quran’s commentary on the verse, a full page, fills out our understanding. It points us to parallels, for example at 10:99-100 and 18:29. It also explores a variety of traditional interpretations, and asks how the verse was originally applied, even perhaps in the context of “mixed marriages” with Jews or Christians. One needs to go back to the original social and political context to understand how it is to be read, since out of context it can easily be misread, misused. In brief, though, the commentary concludes, “The fighting Muslims carried out was motivated by political circumstances and not the desire to convert.”

My second text, from the ninth sura, “Repentance,” serves to bring out another side of the matter. As the commentary suggests, it might even be taken as superseding the passage we have just read:

And an announcement from God and His Messenger to the people on the day of the great hajj: that God and His Messenger have repudiated the idolaters. So, if you repent, it would be better for you. And if you turn away, then know that you cannot thwart God. And give the disbelievers glad tidings of a painful punishment, save for those idolaters with whom you have made a treaty, and who thereafter commit no breach against you, nor support anyone against you. So fulfill the treaty with them for its duration. Truly God loves the reverent. Then, when the sacred months have passed, slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every place of ambush. But if they repent, and perform prayer and give the alms, then let them go their way. Truly God is Forgiving, Merciful. And if anyone of the idolaters seek asylum with thee, grant him asylum until he hears the Word of God. Then convey him to his place of safety. That is because these are a people who know not (9:3-6).

The words are certainly strong: again, judgment is passed on the “idolaters” and “disbelievers;” if they break treaties one must ambush them, capture them, slay them. And yet—there is always more—if they repent of their treaty violations, they can be allowed to go their own way. Idolaters can be granted asylum, safe haven. Here, too, the commentary tells us, we will have to learn about the politics of the early Islamic world, and the Prophet’s efforts to hold his community together, defending it against hostile neighbors; not every word is meant for application in every time and place. My own impression—after preliminary study—is that we find here a sanction of force, but force constrained within the context of diplomacy and treaties, and in the end, ever open to peace, since God, who repudiates idolatry and has no patience with treaty-violators, also “loves the reverent” and is ever “Forgiving, Merciful.”

So what do we conclude? All is in God’s hands; peace is at the core of Islam; there have been and are times when believers have to fight fiercely; people who believe differently are in God’s hands, not ours; divine mercy is never exhausted. All this is very complicated, and perhaps I confuse readers by offering a few insights rather than a full study of such themes. But the point is that further study is needed, not just by the experts, but by you and me. Hence the value of The Study Quran. In the short run, read Caner Dagli’s essay, mentioned above and then, when you have time, start reading passages such as the two I have cited, and then, using the commentary and the index, start flipping back and forth and noting down all the other passages one must read.

To say that all this is complicated is not to evade hard questions, but to insist on hard study. We do not get to judge the Quran without studying it, nor can we walk away from it with some handy verse that suits our friendly or hostile purposes. With any sacred scripture, our own or another, we push back the forces of ignorance and violence if we engage the whole, in all its depth and complexity, insisting on slow study in the face of impatience, fear, anger, and ignorance.

Next: Mary and Jesus in several passages of the Quran.