Wednesday, September 28, 2005

'You Think Your Holy Book Means That, But It Doesn't, So There'

I've become very tired of a particular argument against Islam that appears to be spreading. Irshad Manji, who often says noteworthy and interesting things on the subject of Islam, appears unfortunately to be the most egregious offender. In Al-Maidah (Surah 5), the relevant part of the Recitation begins with the story of Cain and Abel:

Recite to them the truth of the story of the two sons of Adam. Behold! they each presented a sacrifice (to Allah): It was accepted from one, but not from the other.

Said the latter: "Be sure I will slay thee."

"Surely," said the former, "Allah doth accept of the sacrifice of those who are righteous. If thou dost stretch thy hand against me, to slay me, it is not for me to stretch my hand against thee to slay thee: for I do fear Allah, the cherisher of the worlds. For me, I intend to let thee draw on thyself my sin as well as thine, for thou wilt be among the companions of the fire, and that is the reward of those who do wrong."

The soul of the other led him to the murder of his brother: he murdered him, and became one of the lost.

Then Allah sent a raven, who scratched the ground, to show him how to hide the shame of his brother. "Woe is me!" said he; "Was I not even able to be as this raven, and to hide the shame of my brother?" then he became full of regrets.

On that account: We ordained for the Children of Israel that if any one slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land - it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people. Then although there came to them Our messengers with clear signs, yet, even after that, many of them continued to commit excesses in the land.


Al-Maidah 5:32 is a favorite of moderate Muslims. A common paraphrase is, "Whoever murdered any person, it is as if he slew all mankind, and whoever saved the life of any person, it is as if he saved all mankind." It was quoted, for instance, in the fatwa against the terrorist bombings in Britain.

Now, what Manji and others do is shove this aside, and claim that the actual text has a 'qualification' ("except for murder or villainy in the land"), with, apparently, the idea of casting aspersions on the Qur'an, and suggesting that the moderates are only getting their moderate message out of the Qur'an by cut-and-paste. This is utterly arbitrary; and it betrays a reading style that borders on fundamentalist. One can certainly read the clause as a qualification; but one can also read it in other ways. It could also be taken as a common-sense qualification, e.g., that the point of the story here is about the crime of murder, and it is not intended to be a statement on capital punishment. Indeed, from at least one point of view that's the most natural way to read it; and when moderate Muslims paraphrase it in the simpler version, they aren't 'truncating' it at all. They are simply leaving out what they see as a clarification that can be taken as irrelevant, or too obvious to need explicit mention, in the contexts in which they are using it.

There is the further absurdity of going around and telling people that they're reading their own holy book incorrectly. It would make sense if the problem here were ignorance of the actual text of the Qur'an itself, but that's clearly not the problem. Indeed, there is no problem here at all except a made-up one. The meaning of any holy book is not how any Tom, Dick, and Harry think one can read the book, but how the religious community itself orders its own reading of the book. In Sunni Islam, the interpretation of the Qur'an is communal, not individual; the authority on what the Qur'an means is the consensus that builds up over time. It is a slow, hard way of reading a text, since your own reading is never complete until by the slow process of dialogue, prayer, and debate it passes into the community and comes back to you for further consideration.

People who make the sort of argument noted above are not contributing to the interpretation of the text; it is almost as if a bunch of yokel fingerpainters were going about making snide remarks about how real painters were trying to avoid facing up to the messiness of paint. They are trying, somewhat irrationally and entirely arbitrarily, to foist a crude and fundamentalist mode of reading on people whose style of reading is much more sophisticated. The proper response to such people is: If you are incapable of reading books written for grown ups, perhaps you shouldn't read them.

[By the way, Al-Maidah is a rather cool Surah in many ways. It has my favorite passage in the Qur'an (Taurat=Torah; Isa=Jesus; Injeel=Gospel):

Surely We revealed the Taurat in which was guidance and light; with it the prophets who submitted themselves (to Allah) judged (matters) for those who were Jews, and the masters of Divine knowledge and the doctors, because they were required to guard (part) of the Book of Allah, and they were witnesses thereof; therefore fear not the people and fear Me, and do not take a small price for My communications; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the unbelievers.

And We prescribed to them in it that life is for life, and eye for eye, and nose for nose, and ear for ear, and tooth for tooth, and (that there is) reprisal in wounds; but he who foregoes it, it shall be an expiation for him; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the unjust.

And We sent after them in their footsteps Isa, son of Marium, verifying what was before him of the Taurat and We gave him the Injeel in which was guidance and light, and verifying what was before it of Taurat and a guidance and an admonition for those who guard (against evil).

And the followers of the Injeel should have judged by what Allah revealed in it; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the transgressors.

And We have revealed to you the Book with the truth, verifying what is before it of the Book and a guardian over it, therefore judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and do not follow their low desires (to turn away) from the truth that has come to you; for every one of you did We appoint a law and a way, and if Allah had pleased He would have made you (all) a single people, but that He might try you in what He gave you, therefore strive with one another to hasten to virtuous deeds; to Allah is your return, of all (of you), so He will let you know that in which you differed.


The last verse is usually taken ecumenically: the people who are to compete with each other in doing good deeds are the Christians, Jews, and Muslims. That's a jihad (striving) we could all do with.]

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