By Alia Hogben
December 1, 2016
“Is it correct that the Quran teaches violence?” asked my grandson. I try not to be defensive about Islam, nor give a sharp repartee that other sacred texts are full of violent verses. Neither of these responses will help my grandson.
He knows that in his world Islam and Muslims are viewed with hostility and negativity, and his question needs to be answered.
It is incumbent on us, as Muslims, to critically analyze our faith’s teachings in the Quran and contrast these with what is actually being practised by some Muslims.
I tell my grandson that the teachings of Islam are rationally and emotionally appealing. For example, the belief in one God, the story of creation that states that the woman and the man are created from the same essence, and the acceptance of other faiths.
“To God belongs the east and west, so wherever you turn, you are facing towards God.” And “You servants of Mine who have transgressed against your own selves, despair not of God’s mercy, behold God forgives all sins, verily God alone is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”
On other faiths: “... those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians — all who believe in God and the last day and do righteous deeds —shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” And, “For every community faces a direction of its own, of which God is the focal point, vie with one another in doing good works.”
To Muslims the message is, “We have willed you to be a community of the middle way ...”
Muslims and non-Muslims forget the context of the times when the Quran was revealed to the Prophet Mohammad. The period was from 610 CE to his death in 632 CE, and the place was the Arabian Peninsula. Imagine the world of that period and try to understand how harsh the daily lives of the Arabs must have been.
The new Muslims in Mecca were constantly harassed so eventually the small band of believers left the city, their families and friends. They travelled to Medina, whose inhabitants offered them sanctuary. Mohammad made a treaty with these inhabitants, while the animosity of the Meccans continued.
Of course, the Quran has eternal messages, but also importantly it is speaking to the people of that time. There is an urgency and reality to many of the verses because God is addressing that historical community.
Yes, there are verses instructing the new converts about how to deal with the ongoing threats of conflicts between them and their friends and relatives of Mecca. It must have been heartbreaking to fight against one’s own family members to gain their security.
One chapter in particular is about a specific battle, and so the instructions in the Quran include, “Fight in God’s name against those who wage wars against you, but do not commit aggression. Slay them wherever you may come upon them and drive them away from wherever they drove you away — for oppression is even worse than killing ... but if they desist —– behold God is much forgiving, a dispenser of grace.”
The Prophet Mohammad had many roles to fulfill as a messenger of God. One leadership role was the building of a new religious community with its own identity, distinct from tribal ties. Another role was as a defender to protect his followers so that peace and goodwill would prevail.
This comprehensive leadership role of the Prophet may be puzzling to some.
Before I rile up Hindus and Muslims about comparisons, I do find a similarity between this role and that described in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is about a prince on the eve of battle being advised by Krishna his charioteer. The conflict between two divisions within one royal family is resulting in a war. Arjun is distraught on the eve of the battle as he is saddened about killing his relatives. But Krishna advises Arjun and reminds Arjun of his dharma — his duties/actions — as a warrior.
It is the moral dilemma that wars are bad, and yet it is necessary to fight against injustice. Krishna talks about performing one’s duties without desire in the pursuit of justice and Arjun does go to war against his cousins.
Amongst Muslims, the scholar Muhammed Abduh said, “Fighting has been made obligatory in Islam only for the sake of defending the truth and its followers — all the campaigns of the Prophet were defensive in character ...”
Each one of us wants our own understanding of Islam to be the correct one. I recognize my need for a Prophet who is only gentle and peaceful. However, that is my issue, as I know his duties included fighting to protect his followers and create a community of the middle way.
Then there are those of us who misconstrue God’s message to suit our own negative base instincts of revenge and proceed to slaughter the innocent and cause devastation.
To my grandson, I will teach the message of Islam: “God has willed upon Himself the law of grace and mercy.”