Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Reading the Quran: War, Violence, and Jihad

Talking about an encounter with the Quran without talking about violence and jihad would be an act of intellectual and spiritual cowardice.  Tempting, mind you, as the easy way out is always tempting.  Just don't talk about it, whispers the voice of weakness.

But that wouldn't describe the encounter, and mincing words does no-one any favors.

Reading through the Quran, it is impossible to miss the explicit martial language used to describe both the defense of the faith and the spread of the faith.   It was created in the context of conflict, and by conflict I do not mean the dynamic tension between ideas and concepts.   War is a part of its ethic and worldview, and the call to warfare...again, not spiritual or metaphorical, but actual...is as clear as the moon in the sky on a bright cold morning.

Like the Judges in pre-Davidic Judaism, the Prophet actually took forces into battle.  The Quran describes several clashes, including the Battle of Badr (Al-i-Imran 123-125) and the Battle of Uhud (Al-i-Imran 152).  These were not large scale conflicts by the standards of the ancient world, but involved Muslim forces that were...in the case of Badr...fewer in number than the average Presbyterian congregation.   We're not talking a megachurch battle here.

But it is war nonetheless, albeit on a tribal scale.

An entire sura is dedicated to providing instruction for the spoils of war (Al-Anfal).  Again, this was not  initially intended as metaphor.  It assumes conflict with actual physical opponents who no longer need their stuff, because you've killed them.

From this foundation of expansion and conflict, the Quran is considerably more expressive of non-spiritual, non-symbolic violence than the Gospels.   Conflict with unbelievers is repeatedly and consistently articulated in terms that seem to encourage some pretty unpleasant stuff.

It goes beyond Al-Baraqah 191 and 217, which suggest...depending on the translation...that it is better to kill someone who opposes Islam than to permit discord.   Violence in defense of the faith seems presented consistently as a virtue, particularly in opposing unbelievers/backsliders (An Nisa 89).  Although killing other believers intentionally is forbidden, that's an easy one to get around.  (An Nisa 92) It's not a huge conceptual leap from disagreeing with someone to deciding that the source of that disagreement lies in their obvious departure from the One True Faith, in which case, well, there you go.   As a theme, it's consistent and sustained.

And yet this is hardly missing from the narratives of the Bible, either.  The stories of the Exodus and the tales of conflict in the Deuteronomic History are pretty legendarily splattery, filled with plenty of the old ultraviolence.  Much of that is given divine sanction or support by the authors of the narratives.  The Gospels have references to violence as well, although it tends to be clearly metaphoric.   The embrace of war or force of arms is explicitly and consistently rejected, and replaced with a clear and radical ethic of nonviolence.  The Epistles are that way as well, with even the legendarily unpleasant martial imagery of John of Patmos clearly extant in the heavenly/eschatological realms.

From that foundation, early Christianity was almost entirely pacifistic even in the face of violence, to the immense frustration of Roman critics like Marcus Aurelius, who viewed it as weak and devoid of manly warrior virtue.   When St. Augustine wrote the City of God, which lays out the distinction between the Kingdom of God and human governments, it was at least in part intended as a response to those Roman traditionalists who blamed Christian faith for weakening the martial spirit of the Roman people.

Christianity did catch up in the violence department, of course, pretty much the moment Constantine misinterpreted his vision and drove Maximus and his army into the bloody Tiber.   Now THAT was a battle.  Whenever faith mingles with coercive social or economic power, bad things happen.  Empires are not so good at turning the other cheek.

So the question is: Is Islam inherently a violent faith?

If Islam is not just a faith but also a philosophy for governing a nation-state, then the answer must be yes.  Coercion is an inherent part of maintaining collective order.  Wherever there are laws that establish the parameters of what is and is not acceptable in a culture, the threat of coercion exists to insure compliance.  I say this not about Islam alone, because that is true for every faith, in every place and time.  

Christianity is the farthest thing from a violent faith, and it is also not a system of governance.  Understood correctly, there can never be a Christian nation.  But we're great at misunderstanding, so whenever the sword has stood behind my faith to enforce conversion and compliance, plenty of blood has been spilled in the name of Jesus.  When jihad is understood as the war to insure not internal spiritual integrity but external material control over land, property, and the behavior of others, then bad [stuff] will happen.

For Islamic fundamentalism, the answer is also yes.  Reading the Quran through the lenses of a rigid, ultraconservative literalism would provide plenty of grounds for violence, oppression, and coercion, just as it has in Christianity.  If there are no texts in the Quran whose authority is mediated by/interpreted through higher order values, then violence will be the result.

But for Islam inherently?  The answer is no, from both my readings of the Quran and my experience of Muslims more broadly.   If a Muslim is guided in their reading of Quran by the Spirit, and not by the desire for material power or control over others, I am convinced that they will be guided to interpret it in a way that is conducive to both peaceful coexistence and nonviolence.  Understood in historical context and interpreted through the lenses of every human being's inner struggle,  jihad can be a positive thing.

That is not, of course, what we see in much of the Arab world, which is why that word is now almost indelibly and perhaps irredeemably connected with violence in the minds of the West.  But that violence is a result of the use of the standards of the world as the framework from which a violent jihadi understands Quran.

From all of this, the question arises:  Is there any ground for nonviolence in the Quran?  And for that, another post.