~ by Ali A. Rizvi, Pakistani-Canadian writer, physician and musician
Let’s start with what I’m not going to do.
I’m not going to accuse you of staying silent in the face of the horrific atrocities being committed around the world by your co-religionists. Most of you have loudly and unequivocally condemned groups like the Islamic State (ISIS), and gone out of your way to dissociate yourselves from them. You have helped successfully isolate ISIS and significantly damage its credibility.
I’m also not going to accuse you of being sympathetic to fundamentalists’ causes like violent jihad or conversion by force. I know you condemn their primitive tactics like the rest of us, maybe even more so, considering the majority of victims of Islamic terrorists are moderate Muslims like yourselves. On this, I am with you.
But I do want to talk to you about your increasingly waning credibility — a concern many of you have articulated as well.
You’re feeling more misunderstood than ever, as Islamic fundamentalists hijack the image of Muslims, ostentatiously presenting themselves as the “voice of Islam.” And worse, everyone seems to be buying it.
The frustration is evident. In response to comedian Bill Maher’s recent segment ripping liberals for their silence on criticizing Islam, religious scholar Reza Aslan slammed him in a CNN interview. Visibly exasperated, he ultimately resorted to using words like “stupid” and “bigot” to make his points. (He apologized for this later.)
We’ll get to Aslan’s other arguments in a bit. But first, let’s talk about something he said to his hosts that I know many of you relate to: that moderate Muslims are too often painted with the same brush as their fundamentalist counterparts. This is often true, and is largely unfair to moderates like yourselves.
But you can’t simply blame this on the “ignorance” or “bigotry” of non-Muslims, or on media bias. Non-Muslims and the media are no more monolithic than the Muslim world you and I come from.
The problem is this: moderate Muslims like you also play a significant role in perpetuating this narrative — even if you don’t intend to.
To understand how, it’s important to see how it looks from the other side.
Tell me if this sounds familiar:
- A moderate Muslim states that ISIS is wrong, they aren’t “true” Muslims, and Islam is a religion of peace.
- A questioner asks: what about verses in the Quran like 4:89, saying to “seize and kill” disbelievers? Or 8:12-13, saying God sent angels to “smite the necks and fingertips” of disbelievers, foreboding a “grievous penalty” for whoever opposes Allah and his Messenger? Or 5:33, which says those who “spread corruption” (a vague phrase widely believed to include blasphemy and apostasy) should be “killed or crucified”? Or 47:4, which also prescribes beheading for disbelievers encountered in jihad?
- The Muslim responds by defending these verses as Allah’s word — he insists that they have been quoted “out of context,” have been misinterpreted, are meant as metaphor, or that they may even have been mistranslated.
- Despite being shown multiple translations, or told that some of these passages (like similar passages in other holy books) are questionable in any context, the Muslim insists on his/her defense of the Scripture.
Sometimes, this kind of exchange will lead to the questioner being labeled an “Islamophobe,” or being accused of bigotry, as Aslan did with Maher and his CNN hosts. This is a very serious charge that is very effective at ending the conversation. No one wants to be called a bigot.
But put yourself in the shoes of your non-Muslim audience. Is it really them linking Islam to terrorism? We’re surrounded with images and videos of jihadists yelling “Allahu Akbar” and quoting passages from the Quran before beheading someone (usually a non-Muslim), setting off an explosion, or rallying others to battle. Who is really making this connection?
What would you do if this situation was reversed? What are non-Muslims supposed to think when even moderate Muslims like yourselves defend the very same words and book that these fundamentalists effortlessly quote as justification for killing them — as perfect and infallible?
Like other moderates, Reza Aslan frequently bemoans those who read the Quran “literally.” Interestingly enough, we sort of agree on this: the thought of the Quran being read “literally” — or exactly as Allah wrote it — unsettles me as much as it unsettles Reza.
This is telling, and Reza isn’t alone. Many of you insist on alternative interpretations, some kind of metaphorical reading — anything to avoid reading the holy book the way it’s actually written. What message do you think this sends? To those on the outside, it implies there is something lacking in what you claim is God’s perfect word. In a way, you’re telling the listener to value your explanations of these words over the sacred words themselves. Obviously, this doesn’t make a great case for divine authorship. Combined with the claims that the book is widely misunderstood, it makes the writer appear either inarticulate or incompetent. I know that’s not the message you mean to send — I’ve been where you are. But it is important to understand why it comes across that way to many non-Muslims.
If any kind of literature is to be interpreted “metaphorically,” it has to at least represent the original idea. Metaphors are meant to illustrate and clarify ideas, not twist and obscure them. When the literal words speak of blatant violence but are claimed to really mean peace and unity, we’re not in interpretation/metaphor zone anymore; we’re heading into distortion/misrepresentation territory. If this disconnect was limited to one or two verses, I would consider your argument. If your interpretation were accepted by all of the world’s Muslims, I would consider your argument. Unfortunately, neither of these is the case.
You may be shaking your head at this point. I know your explanations are very convincing to fellow believers. That’s expected. When people don’t want to abandon their faith or their conscience, they’ll jump on anything they can find to reconcile the two.
But believe me, outside the echo chamber, all of this is very confusing. I’ve argued with Western liberals who admit they don’t find these arguments convincing, but hold back their opinions for fear of being seen as Islamophobic, or in the interest of supporting moderates within the Muslim community who share their goals of fighting jihad and fundamentalism. Many of your liberal allies are sincere, but you’d be surprised how many won’t tell you what they really think because of fear or political correctness. The only difference between them and Bill Maher is that Maher actually says it.
Unfortunately, this is what’s eating away at your credibility. This is what makes otherwise rational moderate Muslims look remarkably inconsistent. Despite your best intentions, you also embolden anti-Muslim bigots — albeit unknowingly — by effectively narrowing the differences between yourselves and the fundamentalists. You condemn all kinds of terrible things being done in the name of your religion, but when the same things appear as verses in your book, you use all your faculties to defend them. This comes across as either denial or dis-ingenuousness, both of which make an honest conversation impossible.
This presents an obvious dilemma. The belief that the Quran is the unquestionable word of God is fundamental to the Islamic faith, and held by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, fundamentalist or progressive. Many of you believe that letting it go is as good as calling yourself non-Muslim. I get that. But does it have to be that way?
Having grown up as part of a Muslim family in several Muslim-majority countries, I’ve been hearing discussions about an Islamic reformation for as long as I can remember. Ultimately, I came to believe that the first step to any kind of substantive reformation is to seriously reconsider the concept of scriptural inerrancy.
And I’m not the only one. Maajid Nawaz, a committed Muslim, speaks openly about acknowledging problems in the Quran. Recently, in a brave article, Imra Nazeer also asked Muslims to reconsider treating the Quran as infallible.
Is she right? At first glance, this may be a shocking thought. But it’s possible, and it actually has precedent.
I grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, before the Internet. We had an after-school tutor who taught us to read and recite the Quran in classical Arabic, the language in which it’s written.
My family is among the majority of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims — concentrated in countries like Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran — that doesn’t speak Arabic. Millions of us, however, can read the Quran in Arabic, even if we don’t understand it.
In most Muslim households, the Quran is physically placed at the highest place possible. In our house, it was at the top of a tall bookshelf. It cannot be physically touched unless an act of ablution/purification (wudhu) is first performed. It cannot be recited or touched by menstruating women. It is read in its entirety during the Sunni taraweeh prayers in the holy month of Ramadan. In many Muslim communities, it is held over the heads of grooms and brides as a blessing when they get married. A child completing her first reading of the Quran is a momentous occasion — parties are thrown, gifts are given.
But before the Internet, I rarely met anyone — including the devoutly religious — who had really read the Quran in their own language. We just went by what we heard from our elders. We couldn’t Google or verify things instantaneously like we do now.
There were many things in the Quran we didn’t know were in there. Like Aslan, we also mistakenly thought that harsh punishments in Saudi Arabia like decapitation and hand amputation were cultural and not religious. Later, we learned that the Quran does indeed prescribe beheadings, and says clearly in verse 5:38 that thieves, male or female, should have their hands cut off.
Now, there are also other things widely thought to be in the Quran that aren’t actually in there. A prominent example is the hijab or burka — neither is mentioned in the Quran. Also absent is stoning to death as a punishment — it’s mentioned in the hadith (the Sunnah, or traditions of the Prophet), and even in the Old Testament — but not in the Quran.
Neither male nor female circumcision (M/FGM) are found in the Quran. Again, however, both are mentioned in the hadith. When Aslan discussed FGM, he neglected to mention that of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, the Shafi’i school makes FGM mandatory based on these hadith, and the other three schools recommend it. This is why Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, mostly Shafi’i, where Aslan said women were “absolutely 100% equal” to men, has an FGM prevalence of at least 86%, with over 90% of families supporting the practice. And the world’s largest Arab Muslim country, Egypt, has an FGM prevalence of over 90%. So yes, both male and female genital cutting pre-date Islam. But it is inaccurate to say that they have no connection whatever to the religion.
That is the kind of information I could never reliably access growing up. But with the Internet came exposure.
Suddenly, every 12-year-old kid could search multiple translations of the Quran by topic, in dozens of languages. Nothing was hidden. It was all right there to see. When Lee Rigby’s murderer cited Surah At-Tawbah to justify his actions, we could go online and see exactly what he was talking about. When ISIS claims divine sanction for its actions by citing verse 33 from Surah Al-Maaidah or verse 4 from Surah Muhammad, we can look it up for ourselves and connect the dots.
Needless to say, this is a pretty serious problem, one that you must address. When people see moderates insisting that Islam is peaceful while also defending these verses and claiming they’re misunderstood, it appears inconsistent. When they read these passages and see fundamentalists carrying out exactly what they say, it appears consistent. That’s scary. You should try to understand it. Loudly shouting “Racist!” over the voices of critics, as Ben Affleck did over Maher and Sam Harris last week, isn’t going to make it go away.
(Also, if you think criticizing Islam is racist, you’re saying that all of Islam is one particular race. There’s a word for that.)
Yes, it’s wrong and unfair for anyone to judge a religion by the actions of its followers, be they progressive Muslims or al Qaeda. But it is appropriate and intellectually honest to judge it by the contents of its canonical texts — texts that are now accessible online to anyone and everyone at the tap of a finger.
Today, you need to do better when you address the legitimate questions people have about your beliefs and your holy book. Brushing off everything that is false or disturbing as “metaphor” or “misinterpretation” just isn’t going to cut it. Neither is dismissing the questioner as a bigot.
How, then, to respond?
For starters, it might help to read not only the Quran, but the other Abrahamic texts. When you do, you’ll see that the Old Testament has just as much violence, if not more, than the Quran. Stoning blasphemers, stoning fornicators, killing homosexuals — it’s all in there. When you get about ten verses deep into Deuteronomy 20, you may even swear you’re reading a rulebook for ISIS.
You may find yourself asking, how is this possible? The book of the Jews is not much different from my book. How, then, are the majority of them secular? How is it that most don’t take too seriously the words of the Torah/Old Testament — originally believed to be the actual word of God revealed to Moses much like the Quran to Muhammad — yet still retain strong Jewish identities? Can this happen with Islam and Muslims?
Clearly from the above, the answer is a tried-and-tested yes. And it must start by dissociating Islamic identity from Muslim identity — by coming together on a sense of community, not ideology.
Finding consensus on ideology is impossible. The sectarian violence that continues to plague the Muslim world, and has killed more Muslims than any foreign army, is blatant evidence for this. But coming together on a sense of community is what moves any society forward. Look at other Abrahamic religions that underwent reformations. You know well that Judaism and Christianity had their own violence-ridden dark ages; you mention it every chance you get nowadays, and you’re right. But how did they get past that?
Well, as much as the Pope opposes birth control, abortion and premarital sex, most Catholics today are openly pro-choice, practice birth control, and fornicate to their hearts’ content. Most Jews are secular, and many even identify as atheists or agnostics while retaining the Jewish label. The dissidents and the heretics in these communities may get some flak here and there, but they aren’t getting killed for dissenting.
This is in stark contrast to the Muslim world where, according to a worldwide 2013 Pew Research Study, a majority of people in large Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Pakistan believe that those who leave the faith must die. They constantly obsess over who is a “real” Muslim and who is not. They are quicker to defend their faith from cartoonists and filmmakers than they are to condemn those committing atrocities in its name. (Note: To their credit, the almost universal, unapologetic opposition against ISIS from Muslims is a welcome development.)
The word “moderate” has lost its credibility. Fareed Zakaria has referred to Middle Eastern moderates as a “fantasy.” Even apologists like Nathan Lean are pointing out that the use of this word isn’t helping anyone.
Islam needs reformers, not moderates. And words like “reform” just don’t go very well with words like “infallibility.”
The purpose of reform is to change things, fix the system, and move it in a new direction. And to fix something, you have to acknowledge that it’s broken — not that it looks broken, or is being falsely portrayed as broken by the wrong people — but that it’s broken. That is your first step to reformation.
If this sounds too radical, think back to the Prophet Muhammad himself, who was chased out of Mecca for being a radical dissident fighting the Quraysh. Think of why Jesus Christ was crucified. These men didn’t capitulate or shy away from challenging even the most sacred foundations of the status quo.
These men certainly weren’t “moderates.” They were radicals. Rebels. Reformers. That’s how change happens. All revolutions start out as rebellions. Islam itself started this way. Openly challenging problematic ideas isn’t bigotry, and it isn’t blasphemy. If anything, it’s Sunnah.
Get out there, and take it back.