When Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda bomb innocents, or when some fringe imam in a radical mosque preaches hatred toward non-Muslims, these greenhorn â€œIslam expertsâ€ find some passages in the Koran, which apparently justify such extremists. No wonder that these extremists themselves refer to similar passages in the Koran or other Islamic sources. The situation is very similar to the strange agreement between the anti-Semites and the Jewish terrorists on the wrong notion that Judaism justifies carnage.
One common problem in all such misreading of the scriptures is the â€œsloganizationâ€ of certain verses or passages. This is done by taking a part of the holy text out of its textual and historical context, and turning into a slogan that will justify a mundane political agenda. For example, some Islamic revolutionaries, especially the ones who are inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, used to find a political message in this verse: â€œThose who do wrong will come to know by what a great reverse they will be overturned!â€ (26:227) But in fact the verse speaks about the punishment that God will hand down to unbelievers on judgment day.
The crucial mistake here is to overlook Islam’s scholarly tradition called â€œtafseer,â€ which is the study of the meaning of the Koran. Tafseer has a basic rule: A single verse or passage can’t be understood in itself; it has to be evaluated according to the other parts of the Koran, the general goals and principles of the holy text, and the way it was implemented by the prophet. Yet most radicals â€” whether they be Islamist or anti-Islamist â€” don’t have the time to waste with tafseer. They rather copy-paste the divine words to make powerful slogans.
In other words, according to Mustafa Akyol, Muslim extremists don’t learn to hate from reading the Koran. They hate, and then they cherry pick words out of the Koran for permission to act out their hatred.
Akyol wrote that years ago he saw a book that claimed Jews oppressed Muslims because that’s what the Jewish religion taught.
If the Israelis were breaking the bones of a Palestinian youngster â€” a globally notorious scene from the â€˜80s â€” then the caption would include a verse with something like â€œThou shall break their bones.â€ The book’s argument was blunt and simple: The Israelis were torturing a nation because that was what their religion ordered them to do.
The more I learned about the Old Testament and the politics of the Middle East, the more I realized that what the book presented was not analysis but anti-Semitic propaganda.
Of course, we’ve all seen propaganda like that, although the new version cherry picks verses from the Koran to prove that Islam teaches its followers to be terrorists.
But then there’s Mathew 10:34 — “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” — which is one of the Christian Right’s favorite verses. They may not know the Beatitudes from chickens, but the holy rollers can all quote that one verse. It’s an all-purpose justification for war against anyone outside the tribe. Conversely, I’ve seen anti-Christians quote it to show that Christianity is a religion of Evil.
When I was researching the history of fundamentalism for the Wisdom of Doubt series, I was struck by the fact that notions about absolute biblical inerrancy and literal interpretation of the Bible didn’t become popular until a few years after Darwin published Origin of Species. One suspects the “faithful” didn’t reject Darwin because it violated Scripture, but rather retrofitted interpretation of Scripture to justify their rejection of Darwin.
There seems to be a pattern here.
How insane is it that, three centuries after the Age of Reason, religious wars are raging around the planet? I understand why many non-religious people think scriptures promote ignorance and that the world would be better off without religion. I’m not sure religion is the cause of this ugliness as much as it is the excuse for it, however. If people didn’t have religion to justify their darker impulses, they’d come up with something else. As it is, for much of the world’s “faithful” religion has devolved into more of a tribal loyalty than anything resembling a spiritual quest.
On the other hand, one can argue that holy books have become enablers of sociopathy.
The Abrahamic religions in particular insist that their scriptures be respected as works of divine revelation and wisdom. So, mankind has lumbered into the 21st century still dragging a hodgepodge of mostly Iron Age literature vested with enormous, even supernatural, power and authority. And people use this literature to justify wholesale atrocity and to provide moral cover for psychopaths. Various demagogues who are considered “religious leaders” actually encourage this.
I’d say there’s a problem here that needs addressing.
This reminds me of a Zen story. Once upon a time a scholar gained great renown for his erudite interpretation of the sutras. People traveled great distances to hear his lectures and read his books. And then one day he had an awakening experience and realized enlightenment. After this, he burned all of his books and never lectured again.
May all beings realize Wisdom, hopefully before they destroy the planet.