By the Book

Mustafa Akyol writes for the Turkish Daily News:

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 “Islam experts” 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 “sloganization” 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: “Those who do wrong will come to know by what a great reverse they will be overturned!” (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 “tafseer,” 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 — whether they be Islamist or anti-Islamist — 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 — a globally notorious scene from the ‘80s — then the caption would include a verse with something like “Thou shall break their bones.” 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.

21 thoughts on “By the Book

  1. Hi,

    Beduins are not an enlightened people and are thought to be the most primative people on Earth. However, they do not need Tafseer to tell them what the Quran’s verses mean, and if anyone spends some time learning Arabic, picking up gramar and a dictionery they do not need Tafseer either. There is nothing missing, and the English translations are good to just not as good as the Arabic.

    Beduins make sophistry imposible becuase they are very rude and do not hesistate to point out any mistake any Imam makes – yet they actualy cry when it the Quran is recited properly. they are not much in the theology department but they are a good source of langauge knowledge for any Imam that travels with them – but most prefer to learn it in a school with good A/C away from the sun.

    The Beduin tribes of al-Anbar are finishing off alqaeda on more than a few levels, alqaeda’s interpretations of the Quran are so far out of line that they could not fool a 12 years old. It is alqaeda’s hateful bigitory that baguht them down. Hate is not part of the Quran, Alqaeda members do hate deeply, and that makes them weak and stupid – they do not get their hate from the Quran for it goes against all hate.

    To understand a verse you have to know the Quran as a whole, no avoideing that for reading only a small part does not give you a feel for it. If you have read it, then you see how that verse fits in with the whole sowra (image) it is in, easy with only 114 images. It is like a explaining a verse from a poem or a line from a movie – if you do not know the movie you will miss the meaing.

    I hasten to add that I am not qualified to give opinions on Islam or any other religion. The Wisdom of Doubt series was way over my head really, just that I know the Beduins well and like their poets.


  2. Robert Spencer is far more nuanced than you might think; I’d read him a while carefully before dismissing him. (Not his commenters — many many are kooks.)

    To the larger issue, why do so many anti-war people feel the need to diminish the danger from extreme Islam? as that’s where this post seems to be going…to some “All sides have got their terrorists.” The para starting “The Abrahamic religions in particular…” set things up nicely for equal blame.

    Isn’t it possible that the Iraq war is a tragic mistake and also that extreme Islam does indeed represent a serious threat/challenge (call it what you like) to enlightenment values? (A threat/challenge compounded by GW Bush’s stupid response but a real threat/challenge nevertheless.) Look at the response to “the cartoons” etc etc; it’s been bizarre & irrational in Moslem lands and then fear of such response has poisoned civil discourse here. Radical Islam does indeed have a corrosive effect on our own society and far more than does radical Christianity much less radical Judaism. Just because GW Bush has done things to actually further endanger the nation doesn’t mean that there were and are no threats; GW Bush simply got it all wrong and didn’t understand how to respond to the danger.

  3. Ever notice that we keep hearing President Chimpy and the neocons talk about radical Islam, as if religion was the sole basis for the conflict between Islamic and Western states?

    Rarely do we hear anything about economic or ethnic conflicts in that part of the world. Everything is framed as a struggle between differing religions or sects.

    That makes it hard to resolve anything, because it casts the conflict as one between right and wrong, good and evil. If we don’t address the real problems, we’ll never solve anything.

  4. DMS — I was in lower Manhattan on September 11, and nothing infuriates me more than being told I somehow don’t understand the threat of radical Islam. Nothing, I tell you. On a real-world experience level, I think I understand it pretty damn well, and better than most Americans, who only saw the devastation on television.

    This post isn’t about the relative threats posed by various extremist groups. It’s about the role of scripture in either causing or justifying much of the really nasty stuff going on in the world today, here and abroad. You are reading things into this post that I did not intend.

    I pick on the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) because — from the perspective of a Buddhist — it seems to me that the place of scripture in these religions is part of the problem. Not the books themselves, mind you, but the unique power and authority invested in them. In most of Buddhism, and most of the other east Asian religions, the “scriptures” are considered useful spiritual guides but are not the be-all and end-all of enlightenment.

    Hard core fundamentalism (as defined by Karen Armstrong) is almost uniquely an Abrahamic religion phenomenon. There is a Hindu fundamentalist movement, but my understanding is that Hindu fundamentalism originated with a late 19th-century Hindi named Saraswati who had been influenced by western Orientalism. His philosophy is sometimes called neo-Hinduism, Semitized Hinduism, and even Abrahamic Hinduism.

    One occasionally stumbles over something that might be a fundamentalist approach to Buddhism, but these tend to be highly localized phenomena with little impact on the religion as a whole.

    I agree that the Middle East has a bigger problem with extremist religion than anyplace else, and I fear Muslims will have to live through a more few generations of oppression and atrocity before the majority wise up to the virtues of moderation and even secularization. But ultimately this is something Muslims have to work out for themselves. It can’t be imposed on them.

    But if you look at religious extremists in this country, the difference is not really in kind, but in degree. There have been acts of terrorism (think abortion clinics), and they never cease attempting end runs around the First Amendment to use public schools for indoctrination. I have reason to think the most extreme among them will get worse in the next few years.

  5. why do so many anti-war people feel the need to diminish the danger from extreme Islam?
    Because the US is (in many ways) reacting to extreme Islam as if it poses an existential threat, when in fact it does not and is nowhere close.

    Really, people know this; if it were an actual existential threat, people would be lining up to enlist as they did after Pearl Harbor, and the nation would unite.

  6. why do so many anti-war people feel the need to diminish the danger from extreme Islam?

    Because it’s been so blown out of perspective..everybody is running around killing al-Qaida, but they don’t even know what al-Qaida is.. what it is, is an abstract term to collectively lump all resistance no matter what the motivation is into a tidy little catch all phrase. Bin Laden attacked the world trade center for political reasons and not for religious ideologies or the advancement of Islam.
    Bush never addressed the possibility that 9/11 was politically motivated because it would have meant that we’d have to look at ourselves and asses our policies in the middle east. It’s so much easier to be a victim and find people eager to latch on to victim-hood. How come Osama didn’t attack Uruguay?

  7. Maha, all I can offer is my own reaction. If I misunderstood your post, I am sorry. However I stand by my general comment. There is a tremendous sense that because GW Bush has brought disaster upon us with the Iraq War, then there was never a problem with extreme Islam and that alarms about jihadism were just part of the trickery which lead us to war. I hear that every day.

    As to Joel Hanes remark, the reason no one is “lined up to enlist” is because our government hasn’t asked – and its refusal to ask for any sacrifice from the American people is implicit suggestion that fighting jihadism is not that kind of struggle. The fact that American leadership has been incompetent to face the challenge of jihadism does not mean that jihadism is not a threat. We just haven’t had any idea how to handle jihadism…such as by the ancient strategy of “divide and conquer.”

    Bush had a world-historical opportunity in the 4-6 months after Sept 11 to reshape global politics in a manner which would have given him a legacy as one of the greatest American Presidents rather than as one of the goats. It’s tragic for us that he was not man enough to do it.

  8. And Swami, above. illustrates my main point.

    I guess a litmus-test here is one’s attitude toward Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

  9. There is a tremendous sense that because GW Bush has brought disaster upon us with the Iraq War, then there was never a problem with extreme Islam and that alarms about jihadism were just part of the trickery which lead us to war. I hear that every day.

    You hear it from right-wingers misquoting people, then. It’s a very common, and very false, straw man I see on the Right.

    It’s true that the Bushies inflated the threat of SADDAM HUSSEIN AND IRAQ and his TIES TO AL QAEDA to sell the war in Iraq, and plenty of us have pointed that out. But it is a slander to say that the antiwar left commonly believes “there was never a problem with extreme Islam.”

    I live in New York. We live here in a constant state of orange alert. I can’t go into a public building without going through a metal detector and getting my bag searched. We’ve had armed National Guard patrolling Grand Central Station and other places these past six years. And I’m personally OK with this, because I appreciate how much destruction one little strategically placed bomb could cause here.

    But it’s also a fact that the Bushies have, from time to time, spread stories about terrorist threats for their own political reasons, and I do not appreciate it. The most blatant example of this I can think of were the threats to financial centers they spread during the 2004 DNC convention that turned out to be based on intelligence that was several years old. Please.

    It’s also the case that radical Islam is not an existential threat to the United States, but as I argued here and elsewhere, by putting too much faith in a military solution to jihadism, U.S. policy is hurting us more than it’s hurting them.

    I guess a litmus-test here is one’s attitude toward Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

    The only litmus test is whether one responds with a brain or with a jerking knee. I see now you are in the latter camp. If I wanted to have right-wing talking points recited at me I could visit Little Green Footballs; I don’t need it here. Good bye.

  10. The “dangers of extreme Islam?”

    Do you think the only thing they are angry about is that the US and Europe are predominantly Christian? The experience of being invaded and “colonized” by European powers had nothing to do with it?

    Do you think that the fact that we support repressive governments in exchange for being allowed to exploit their natural resources is irrelevant? What about our lavish support for Israel and disregard for the Palestinian people? Is that strictly a religious issue?

    Look at the conflict between the Shia and Sunni in Iraq. The real source of the conflict is not a schism that took place 1300 years ago, it is based on ethnic and economic differences.

    The Sunni tribes were allied with the British when Iraq was a colony, and the Shia tribes were oppressed. This continued up until Saddam’s Sunni/Baathist government was removed from power by our invasion. The Shia want revenge and the Sunnis know it.

    This sounds like a religious conflict until you consider that to the Iraqis, Sunni or Shia is an ethnic identification, not a choice of beliefs. A Sunni cannot “convert” to Shia, the way a Catholic can become a Protestant.

    The reason extremists use religious verses to justify their actions is it makes their actions “moral.” That’s why they pick and choose verses that support their aims, and ignore any that conflict. They’re not really fighting over religion.

  11. I’m not getting involved in the present spat, but I just want to say that I entirely agree that belief in the inerrancy of scripture is a very serious problem, and that if one really wants to address the relationship between Darwinism and religion, there is no better place to begin than David Sloan Wilson’s ‘Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society’, which is no way an attack on religion in the manner of Dawkins and Hitchens, but a wonderfully humane and intelligent examination of the biological roots of religion and its place in human life – not that it will offer much comfort to the blind believer. I found interesting your suggestion that belief in the inerrancy of scripture seems to have arisen partly at least in response to Darwin’s theory. I think it highly likely, since Darwin’s theory presents an unanswerable challenge in particular to the monotheistic religions: there is no movement against Darwinism in polytheistic and Buddhist Japan, where I live, and I don’t think that it would pose a problem to a Hindu – and it certainly wouldn’t pose a problem to anybody who has been influenced by Taoist ideas.
    Tim Harris

  12. Great post Maha.
    Many good comments.
    Bush and his buddies have encouraged radicals of the Muslim faith by supporting Israel, invading Iraq, stationing troops in Saudi, and with on-going special forces ops through out North Africa, Central Asia, and the Philippines. One cannot fight radical Islam with the military, it is way too complicated, and our leaders are way too simple.The strong do what they will, and the weak will do what they must.
    Bush MUST be removed from office before he launches an attack on Iran, which may draw in the dragon and the bear.

  13. ‘why do so many anti-war people feel the need to diminish the danger from extreme Islam?”

    Ever hear of Alister Crowley? Probably yes. He is famous for his instruction on satinism. Why is he famous? Bacause of the attacks on him by outraged Christians. Left alone, noone ever would have noticed the little man or his bizarre beliefs. Am I diminishing the danger of peverted religous teachings? No! But I know that advertising a weird cult is the best way to grow it.

    Fundi Islam was a LOT less popular before Bush started the war in Iraq. Wholesale arrests w/out habeus corpus, wireless wiretaps, torture, and the occuparion of sacred lands (to nearly all Muslims) has mobilized fundimental Islam. We are recruiting for our enemy.

    That’s my take on ‘diminish the danger’. You don’t put out a fire with kerosine. We have a much larger problem then we did on 9/11, because of the counterproductive methods of this administration.

  14. Maha, the problem that you note is a sin; specifically the sin of bibliolatry, the making of a book into an idol. To make an idol of a book that itself condemns idols is ironic at best.

  15. Wonderful post, Maha, with some really excellent comments. It shows a direction towards understanding some of the most confounding problems of the present-day Abrahamic religions. It also raises the following question: aside from more holistic methods of interpretation, what other resources are available in these traditions to balance the heavy role of scripture? I was particularly struck by what you said about (Davananda) Saraswati, whom I had never heard of before. That led me to another site, where I found a post that deals with some of the same issues as yours.

  16. Oddly, the Zen story with which the essay concluded is substantially the story of Thomas Aquinas who had a spiritual revelation of faith near the end of his life.

    Issues of faith are not described by rationalism, objectivity, and scientific method; even Aquinas, and long after writing his Summa Theologica that attempted to use rationalism to prove the existence of God, recognized that at the end of his life, since faith is a belief in something for which there is no evidence.

    and like a true Taoist once Aquinas “knew,” he shut up and never wrote another word on the subject.

  17. RE: Darwinism & Christianity

    Excellent post (as usual), Maha. 🙂

    Augustine himself viewed the creation story(s) of Genesis as non-literal & believed that however the earth was created, it probably was not in six literal days.

    Origen was originally quite a literalist & castrated himself (“If your eye offend thee, pluck it out,” except it wasn’t his eye, it was his dick LOL). Later, Origen realised the stupid mistake he made & he realised that there’s lots of figures of speech & symbolism in scripture & ought not to be taken at face value. He & Clement were the main proponents of the “Alexandrian School” which took an allegorical approach to reading scripture & has an important place in the evolution of Christian theology.

    Now, don’t get me wrong with what I am about to say here– I think the printing press is one of the greatest inventions ever, BUT… The first “book” to be printed was, naturally, the Bible (all the western canonical scriptures being under one cover) & the ones to really open it up & read it were Protestants. Catholics had less of a need for it because the Bible wasn’t read outside of the context of the tradition, whereas Protestantism kinda threw out all tradition & had to compensate for it really by having just the Bible. The problem is this created a sort of theological free-for-all. This is what distinguishes Protestantism from the break between the Catholic church & the Anglicans or the Eastern Catholic church & the Eastern Orthodox.

    The problem is, these people had never ever read before in their entire life. This was a totally new experience, one that is hard for US to grasp just how RADICAL it was, to be able to read on your own! And imagine, their first experience of reading is a book where donkeys talk, the world is created in six days, etc. How else could they read it? And with the salvation of each individual depending on the personal relationship between that person & God, there was nothing else to fall back on but one’s own reading of the Bible. Hence the beginning of Biblical literalism– it sparked from a sudden break in tradition, the Bible being lifted out of the context which it “lived” for centuries.

    (The Catholic church had its own problems before this, but it did not necessarily stem from Biblical literalism but other problems).

    Case in point: Copernicus & Galileo. Now, I’m not apologising for the Catholic church (besides, I am an atheist, but I’m no Richard Dawkins/Sam Harris annoying type), BUT… I think everyone knows the story about WHY Galileo got into trouble was because of a passage in scripture about the sun “rising” and “setting” etc. What is important to note is WHO originally brought this up as proof that Galileo was wrong. The historical context is telling…

    First of all, Copernicus, long before Galileo, was comissioned by the Vatican to do a study of why the planets weren’t going in perfect circles around the earth like they were supposed to (this was inherited by Ptolemy & had nothing to do with Christianity to begin with). Copernicus concluded the earth revolved around the sun, not the other way round, and the Catholic church kinda wanted to have it both ways at once (something silly called “saving the appearances”– its a weird concept to us today).

    Copernicus’ book on this subject was big in Catholic universities, but Protestants (especially Lutherans) were very upset about all this because of their literalistic reading of scripture, whereas the Catholic church never felt bound to interpret scripture that way.

    Then along comes Galileo with his telescope, only making matters worse for the literalists. Now Galileo was a friend of the pope of that time (not good enough obviously LOL) & originally was defended by the Catholic church, albeit with some reluctance (figuring this up on a piece of paper is one thing, but to see it with one’s own eye? how can we “save the appearances” now?).

    What happened is the Catholic church caved into the Protestants’ PR campaign, which ran something like this: “See how evil those Catholics are? They keep supporting these people that say things completely contrary to [our literal reading of] the Bible!” And caving into pressure, the Catholic church changed tack & to prove that they were just as “Christian” they made Galileo’s life hell. He became a political victim.

    I’m not justifying the Catholic church at all, but what I want to point out is WHERE EXACTLY the problem began– it began with literalism which is something unique to Protestantism. The Catholic church has had its fair share of monstrosities too, but not because of some literalistic reading of the Bible, because the Bible was treated by the Catholic church (& the Anglican & Orthodox churches) in a manner similar to Islamic tafseer. Protestants cut themselves off from that entire tradition.

    Since then, the Catholic church has in turn been influenced & even “protestantized” to a certain extent, at least in many Catholic circles in America, but it began with the mixed blessing of Protestantism which based itself on lifting Christian scripture out of its centuries-old interpretive context & its not surprising that it took a literalistic turn.

  18. paradoctor — I agree completely that the way many Christians relate to the Bible is a form of idolatry.

    priscianus — Thank you for the link. I don’t know all that much about Hindu fundamentalism, but it makes sense to me that it would stem from a “westernized” understanding of Hindu texts.

    kuvasz — I did not know that about Aquinas. I’ll have to check it out.

    We Are The 801 — thank you for the historical retrospective.

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