The following is consequent to reading ‘What the Qur’an Meant and Why It Matters’ by Garry Wills, New York, 2017. (The touch of ambiguity in the title’s anaphoric pronoun is surely deliberate.) Page reference, unless otherwise stated, is to this book. Professor Wills, now retired, once studied for the Roman-Catholic priesthood; later, he taught Greek and History.
Thirty-one percent of the world’s population is Christian; twenty-three is Muslim (p. 4) and growing. The word “Islam” means submission to Allah, and to Muslims Allah’s will is expressed in the Qur’an: Professor Abdel Haleem in his translation of the Qur’an (Oxford University Press) states that the sacred book is the supreme authority in Islam. The Qur’an is essentially an oral text, audibly received; orally transmitted. The revelations to the Prophet were made over several years, and their ordering in the Qur’an is neither chronological nor topical. This means there is no narrative thread for the reader to follow with ease. Further, “Some things in the book are off-putting – slavery, patriarchal attitudes toward women, religious militarism. But the same can be said of the biblical Torah” (pp. 5-6).
The Qur’an is a fungible and fraternal text, the latter in that it respects earlier prophets. One of the Prophet’s wives, Safiyya bint Huyayy, was a Jew and one of his concubines, Marya al-Qibtiyya, a Christian (p. 127). The Qur’an explicitly states: “There is no compulsion in religion” (Sura 2:256). At the commencement of any undertaking, Muslims recite: Bismillah rahmani Rahim (In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful), and every chapter of the Qur’an, except the Ninth, commences with this formulaic dedication. Even a cursory reading of the Qur’an will reveal the emphasis laid on the understanding and forgiving nature of Allah. Pope Francis wrote that authentic Islam is opposed to every form of violence (p. 3): the emphasis, I presume, falls on “authentic”. Yet in the minds of many, the Qur’an and Muslims are associated with violence, if not cruelty; with outdated, barbaric, notions and attitudes. People and groups with influence, either through ignorance or malice, distort the religion: the title of Jonathan Brown’s book, Misquoting Muhammad (2014), comes to my mind. Before we make statements about Islam; before we adopt a position, Professor Wills urges that we read the Qur’an and inform ourselves. It’s unjust and foolish to comment on Islam without reading the book which is its foundation. It’s said that seeing is believing but believing can also lead to seeing in the sense that if we have a prejudice about a group – be it on grounds of ‘race’, colour, religion or sex – then we are predisposed to “see” negatives in them. (The ‘Implicit-Association test’ is of relevance here.) Yuri Slezkine in his The Jewish Century notes “the growing Western antipathy” towards Islam and Muslims (Princeton and Oxford, 2004, p. 365).
Among the several misconceptions Wills attempts to correct two are about Shari’ah Law and the wearing of the hijab. The term “Shari’ah” occurs only once in the Qur’an, and there it hasn’t to do with law but means the right path. Subsequently, “the vague and sketchy elements of law in the Qur’an” (p. 147) were clarified and filled out by “sunnah (the Prophet’s reported behaviour), ahadith (the Prophet’s reported sayings), qiyas (analogical extensions), ijma (scholars’ consensus)”. So it is as absurd to call generally for the banning of Shari’ah law as to demand the banning of Christian law (p. 147). Where clothing is concerned, there were so many calling on the Prophet that it was necessary to afford the female members of his household a measure of extra privacy. The intention was to elevate – not to suppress. For an extended treatment, see Professor Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revolution, Yale University Press (commented on by me under the title ‘The Islamic hijab and veil’, Colombo Telegraph, 26 March 2017). Words from the Qur’an are taken out of context, leading to gross misrepresentation. For example, “Kill them wherever you encounter them and drive them out” (Sura 2:191) meant: You must not fight on sacred ground but if you are attacked, then retaliate (p. 133). One may add that the word Jihad does not mean war but struggle, and struggle can take many different forms: the Prophet referred to the major Jihad as being the struggle for self-control and moral betterment.
But I wonder whether the equation of the Qur’an and Islam is valid. For example, if we say that Christianity is a gentle, or Buddhism a compassionate, religion what we mean is these faiths as they were taught – not as they are practiced in private and public life. Writing on Graham E. Fuller’s, A World Without Islam (Colombo Telegraph, 27 May 2016), I suggested a distinction between religious doctrine and religion with its rituals, paraphernalia, hierarchy, myths and superstitions. Religious doctrine has a divine or semi-divine origin or is from an exalted, exceptional, individual. Simplifying, one could say: While religious doctrine is ‘divine’; religion is a human construct. Religion being human helps explain why the same religion in the same country can be gentle and tolerant and, at another time in its history, be vicious and hegemonic. Fuller asks, if there weren’t Islam would there be peace? Is the conflict between Jews and Christians on the one side, and Muslims on the other really based on differing theological beliefs? Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with the creation of the Palestinian problem. “The crime of the Holocaust” lies entirely on European shoulders: Palestinians are paying the price for European sins over the centuries, culminating in the Holocaust (Fuller, p. 303). The so-called “Palestinian problem” is one created for the Palestinians by Israel: the Palestinians are the victims and not the originators of this “problem”.
To engage in ‘counterfactual thinking’ (a counterfactual is a conditional containing an if-clause followed by what is contrary to fact), if Tamils had been Buddhists, would history have been different? Given the affinity between Hinduism and Buddhism; given that elements of Hinduism have been taken over into the Buddhist religion (in blatant contradiction of Buddhist doctrine, that is, of the Buddha’s teaching), is this not evidence that ethnicity is more potent that religion? Durkheim (credited with formally establishing the academic discipline of Sociology and being, together with Marx and Weber, one of the principal architects of the social sciences) argued that finally in religion the object of worship is society itself. Abdullah Ocalan, in his Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilization, argues that religion is identical with the concept of politics. Edward Gibbon in Volume 1 of his classic work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, comments on the collusion between state and religion. Both religion (not religious doctrine) and politics have to do with power; with power, respect and influence. So if we comment on Islam or on any other religion, we should make clear whether the reference is to religion as actually practised or as originally preached.
We make a distinction, irrespective of religion, between practising and nominal believers. A nominal Muslim may not hold to all the Five Pillars of Islam; a nominal Buddhist, unlike true Buddhists, may not be a vegetarian: since Sri Lanka is largely (and vociferously) Buddhist, one would expect the Island to be largely vegetarian and largely free of alcohol-consumption. A nominal Christian may break one or more of the Ten Commandments; ignore the Beatitudes as listed by Saint Matthew. But what do we mean by “a practising believer”, be she Buddhist, Christian or Muslim? It is not merely someone who attends church, mosque or temple; someone who repeats chants and prayers; bows to monks and priests, and venerates places of worship: As Gandhi said, The essence of religion lies in the practising of morality. (See also the Qur’an, Sura 49:13.) In a message to me dated 29 May 2016, Fuller wrote: “Despite my Christian upbringing, it is ultimately Buddhism which has contributed to my personal, most basic world and spiritual views today (although I don’t claim I am Buddhist as such). I had initially tended to think that Buddhists were of course something of an exception to the bloody links between religion and violence. Yet I discovered in later years that in Sri Lanka, and indeed in Myanmar, that Buddhists too…”
The greatest damage to religious doctrine; to its noble core, is wreaked not by its enemies but by its most fanatical and irrational adherents. Their behaviour in the name of religion can make a mockery of their own religious doctrine. It’s they who turn positive ‘religious-doctrine’ into negative ‘religion’. A state or a government can legitimise what is unlawful but, far more potently, religion can make pious that which is unjust and cruel. As I have written elsewhere: I hate more, and am prepared to be more intolerant and cruel than you in the name of our religion. Therefore, I am the better believer; the more pious follower. Hate, and not love, becomes the measure of religious piety. Zionists claim they have no option but to occupy all the land since it is Jehovah’s wish. Those who protest the relentless dispossession of the unfortunate Palestinians are branded anti-Semites; as racists. (Here, as elsewhere, racists use the octopus-ink of calling their victims “racists”.)
Karl Marx, with reference to a group of French socialists said, if they are Marxists, then I myself am not a Marxist. One can well imagine the Buddha, observing acts of violence, cruelty and domination perpetrated allegedly on his behalf, saying: “Not in my name! If that is what has been made of Buddhism, then I am not a Buddhist”. And “Gentle Jesus” seeing the cruelty of the Crusaders, the Conquistadors in Latin America, the Inquisition, Western imperialism in various parts of the world; seeing what Ulrich Beck in his The Metamorphosis of the World (posthumous publication: 2016) notes as “the alliance between the sword and the cross”, would weep tears of pity and say, “If this is Christianity, then I’m not a Christian.” (The visiting-card of the vicious Ku Klux Klan is a burning cross: the Cross, symbol of Christ’s loving self-sacrifice, is turned into a sign of terror.)
Often in religion as practised, as “ex-pressed”, the very essence of religious doctrine is lost: what makes Buddhism truly Buddhist; Christianity truly Christian; and Islam truly Islam. Do we evaluate by religious doctrine or by religion; comment by theory or by practice? As my wife wryly observed, “If ‘religious doctrine’ were turned into ‘religion’, this world in which we briefly sojourn would be a far more beautiful place”.