I read an article on Thinkprogress.com this morning that asks the question “Has Bill Maher Finally Gone Too Far?” with regard to his animosity toward Muslims and Islam. I personally think the answer is “yes”, if for no other reason than that he is taking significant heat from other self-identifying liberals, progressives and atheists.
In the article, Maher is quoted as saying, “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.”
I’ll cut to the chase. This is quickly and easily debunked by simply opening a Qur’an. Most of the snippets of text pulled from the Qur’an to show that (1) Islam is an inherently violent faith and (2) Muslims are directed to slay all non-Muslims (including Jews and Christians) because (3) “infidel” equals “non-Muslim” are cited out of context.
But first things first. Mr. Maher is wrong about the contents of the Qur’an. Perhaps he was indulging in hyperbole when he insisted that violence against “infidels” is “absolutely” “on every page.” It hardly matters because people who have not read the Qur’an may believe him simply because of who he is. Beyond this, there are a raft of assumptions wrapped up in Maher’s single sentence. I’d like to try to tackle them one at a time.
Violence on every page?
Bill Maher isn’t alone in his assertion that the Qur’an is wall to wall about violence toward “the infidel”. Recently a conservative political operative from Idaho stated:
“There are at least 109 Sura’s (sic) that advocate violence and death towards infidels. And make no mistake; if you are not a Muslim, you are an infidel. Period.”
There are 114 surihs in the Qur’an, total. I can vouch for the fact that only a handful of verses deal with “the infidel”, which Muhammad does not describe as anyone who is not Muslim. If you are unwilling to accept my word for it, please, get a Qur’an and read it for yourself. I recommend the Pickthall translation (in print) because the translator sets the historical context and gives contextual notes at the beginning of most Surihs.
What is in the Qur’an? Commandments to care for the poor, the sick and the needy, to revere women, to practice kindness, to not trespass on another’s property, to avoid hostilities, to teach by example and not to spread the faith through compulsion. There is the repeated assertion that The People of Scripture (Jews, Christians and Sabeans) have been rightly guided by God because, to Muhammad, these were earlier phases of the same revealed religion of submission (to the will of God)—in a word, Islam. There are laws pertaining to marriage and divorce and inheritance, the exhortation to free slaves, to practice justice. You will find the stories of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, of Jesus’ conception through the agency of the Holy Spirit and testimony to HIs greatness as a divine messenger (Muhammad referred to Christ as Ruhu’llah, meaning “the Spirit of God”).
There are verses like these:
Hast thou observed him who belieth religion? That is he who repelleth the orphan, and urgeth not the feeding of the needy. Ah, woe unto worshippers who are heedless of their prayer; who would be seen (at worship) yet refuse small kindnesses! — Qur’an, Surih 107:1-7
(The above, by the way, is one of the earliest Surihs revealed by Muhammad. That’s the entire Surih. It serves as a sort of benchmark for Muslim behavior. It is one of the last surihs in the Qur’an because they are traditionally arranged by length.)
O ye who believe! Be steadfast witnesses for Allah in equity, and let not hatred of any people seduce you that ye deal not justly. Deal justly, that is nearer to your duty. Observe your duty to Allah. — Qur’an, Surih 5:8
Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabaeans – whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right – surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. — Qur’an, Surih 2:62
It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces to the East and the West; but righteous is he who believeth in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the prophets; and giveth wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observeth proper worship and payeth the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the Allah-fearing. — Qur’an, Surih 2:177
Translation (if one is needed): Righteousness does not come from the rituals or observances of doctrine, but from faith that is acted upon. The actions that are recommended here are ever-widening act of generosity (from kinsfolk all the way to mankind as a whole), magnanimity, piety, kindness and trustworthiness.The mention of keeping a treaty is important in context with the rest of the surih for reasons that will, I hope be clear as you read on.
Is Islam inherently violent?
The last two verses above are from the Surih (Chapter) most often used to show Islam’s inherent hatred of anyone non-Muslim. They are not, however, often quoted. This passage is: “And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter.”
Here is the verse in context with the surrounding material, in which Muhammad begins to set forth the rules of warfare:
Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities. Lo! Allah loveth not aggressors. And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter. And fight not with them at the Inviolable Place of Worship until they first attack you there, but if they attack you (there) then slay them. Such is the reward of disbelievers. But if they desist, then lo! Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah. But if they desist, then let there be no hostility except against wrong-doers. — Qur’an, Surih, 2:190-193
- Fight only those who fight you.
- Do not begin hostilities.
- If your adversaries desist in persecuting you, forgive them and do not hold them in hostility.
This set the rules for Muslim warfare for centuries. Muslims were not to harm non-combatants, persecute priests or monks, poison or destroy wells, lay waste to crops, orchards or livestock. Which was why the Muslims were so appalled at the practices of the Christian Crusaders, who pursued a “scorched earth” policy and slaughtered non-combatants—even children and babes in arms.
Who is Muhammad speaking of, in the above passage? The term used in Pickthall translation is “disbeliever”, which is equated with the word “Infidel”. But who, exactly, did Muhammad consider an infidel? Not Christians, Jews or Sabeans in general, clearly. Not even atheists, of whom He said, essentially, “You go your way; I’ll go mine.”
The word “infidel” literally means “unfaithful.” Synonyms given in the Oxford Dictionary include: disloyal, treacherous, traitorous, untrustworthy, unreliable, undependable, false, false-hearted, faithless, perfidious, insincere, two-faced, Janus-faced, back-stabbing, double-crossing, double-dealing, deceitful. When it comes to personal relationships, we continue to define infidelity in this way, but in the realm of faith, the term “infidel” long ago came to mean “not us”. In Judaism, it referred to pagan gentiles. In Christianity, to non-Christian’s or enemies of the faith.
It is inarguable that in the minds of some Muslims, as in Bill Maher’s, an infidel is any non-Muslim. In the eyes of ISIS, the term even pertains to Muslims who are “not us”.
But the subject here is not what people have come to believe. It is what is in the pages of the Qur’an. Here’s how Muhammad described the people He will later in the same surih call upon His followers to fight:
And of mankind are some who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day, when they believe not.… In their hearts is a disease, and Allah increaseth their disease. A painful doom is theirs because they lie. And when it is said unto them: Make not mischief in the earth, they say: We are peacemakers only … And when they fall in with those who believe, they say: We believe; but when they go apart to their devils they declare: Lo! we are with you; verily we did but mock. — Qur’an, Surih 2:8-14
Those who break the covenant of Allah after ratifying it, and sever that which Allah ordered to be joined, and (who) make mischief in the earth: Those are they who are the losers. — Qur’an, Surih 2:27
And when We made with you a covenant (saying): Shed not the blood of your people nor turn (a party of) your people out of your dwellings. Then ye ratified (Our covenant) and ye were witnesses (thereto). Yet ye it is who slay each other and drive out a party of your people from their homes… Believe ye in part of the Scripture and disbelieve ye in part thereof? …Such are those who buy the life of the world at the price of the Hereafter. — Qur’an, Surih 2:84-86
Why the reference to believing in the Scripture? In the Qur’an “Scripture” refers to the Torah and Gospels. As you might suspect from the verses I quoted, the Prophet was responding to a betrayal by a group of people who claimed belief in the Scripture. It was a betrayal that threatened not just Muhammad’s life, but the existence of the entire Muslim community.
Here is the historical context: Having entered into a covenant with the Muslim community and claiming to have accepted Muhammad as their Messiah, the Jews of Yathrib consorted with the pagan tribes that had been trying to wipe out the Muslims. Muhammad’s reference to them slaying each other and driving people from their homes should remind us that the Muslims were not transplants from outside the area—they were people who not long before had been Christians, Sabeans, pagans or Jews themselves. Thus, the infidels that the Muslims were being called upon to fight (but only until they desisted) were people who had behaved treacherously toward the converts in their midst.
Context is everything.
It’s important when reading anything—Scripture or not—to avoid cherry-picking. One way to do this is to approach the subject with as much detachment and as little prejudice as possible. A difficult task, at best. There is a passage of Bahá’í scripture that most Bahá’ís refer to as the Tablet of the True Seeker. We use it as a benchmark for detachment, which was something I struggled with because of my own prejudice against Islam.
[The Seeker] must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth. — Bahá’u’lláh, Kitab-i-Iqan, Part II
Another critical element is to read with a desire to understand. Atheist scholar-philosopher Bertrand Russel wrote that
Everyone knows that to read an author simply in order to refute him is not the way to understand him.… — Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays
Most important, I’ve found, is to be aware of context. Is there a hierarchy of ideas in the texts? Is there an overriding principle to be held in mind, such as the twin commandments from Christ to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves? The Qur’anic verses about the treatment of infidels have their own internal context with commandments to never begin hostilities, to forgive as God forgives, to fight only wrong-doers. They also exist in context with verses in which Muhammad establishes overarching spiritual principles of unity and justice and utters a solemn warning that the believer not be seduced by hatred of any people into behaving unjustly.
But there is another context in which Muhammad’s rules of warfare must be taken, I think. That is the way warfare is conducted in our presumably more civilized age. Look again at the restrictions placed upon Muslim warriors by the Prophet and imagine that all nations honored them in recent wars. Think of carpet bombing, land mines, chemical and nuclear weapons, napalm, drones and other things that have become part of our “cost of war” analysis.
Are groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda breaking rules of modern warfare? That’s debatable, but they are most certainly breaking the principles laid down by the Prophet they claim to follow—principles that the vast majority of Muslims the world over strive to adhere to. Mr. Maher has a huge following and is viewed by fans as an outspoken liberal/progressive voice. For reasons known only to himself and God, he is using that voice, his talent, his resources and his celebrity to create animus toward all Muslims, their faith and their Prophet. He stirs up fear and anger that has no place to go. This is, as my mother was fond of saying, an accident going somewhere to happen.
In the article that sparked this post, Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson for Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) commented, “I don’t view bigotry or intolerance as liberal or progressive.”
His comment underscores the ironic sympathy between Mr. Maher’s opinions and those of a political activist with diametrically opposed views on just about any other subject. Fear and animosity are non-partisan. They are also, all too often, impervious to reason.
. . . love is light, no matter in what abode it dwelleth; and hate is darkness, no matter where it may make its nest. — Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, vs 1