By Gabriel Said Reynolds
March 01, 2020
In the name of Allah, militant Muslims continue taking up arms against people they consider threats to their faith and way of life. But does it make theological sense for humans to pick up swords and guns to exact retribution in this life?
In this file image taken from video released Friday Oct. 31, 2014, by Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, centre, the leader of Nigeria's Islamic extremist group, surrounded by his fighters. (STR/AP)
The Quran, the book those same Muslims purport to revere, says no.
On Feb. 9, the militant group Boko Haram killed 30 people in the latest of their attacks in northern Nigeria. Boko Haram is not alone in their violent ideology, which targets both non-Muslims (in Nigeria this means principally Christians) and Muslims whom they consider heretical or deviant.
The group is one manifestation of a larger Islamist movement, including also Al Qaeda and ISIS, known as “Salafi-Jihadism,” that has spread in recent decades across the Islamic world. Many Salafi-Jahidis consider their campaigns fundamentally defensive.
From their perspective, Islam is under attack from various groups.
Osama Bin Laden spoke of “the Jews and the Crusaders.” The Islamic State was obsessed with the danger of Shiʿites in Iraq and Alawites in Syria. Boko Haram is motivated in part by the perceived threat of western education to the Muslim community. All of these Salafi-Jihadis see themselves as striking back against enemies in defense of their prophet and their God.
Yet it is not only Salafi-Jihadi groups who feel the need to defend Islam. Several years ago, a controversy unfolded in Indonesia, the largest Islamic country in the world, surrounding the Christian governor of Jakarta: Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama.
In the Fall of 2017, Ahok was in the midst of a campaign to be reelected governor when he made a comment about a verse in the fifth chapter of the Quran. He questioned whether this verse — which in the Indonesian translation reads: “Do not take Christians and Jews and make them your leaders” — should prevent Muslims from voting for a Christian.
Ahok’s comment was twisted and interpreted as an insult to the Quran. After a popular movement among Islamists, he was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to two years in prison.
In other places in the Islamic world, still more serious consequences have followed accusations of blasphemy. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting the Prophet Muhammad. When she was finally acquitted in October 2018 (and smuggled out of the country because of death threats), massive street protests followed. Some protestors held signs implying that their love of Allah compelled them to demand the death to blasphemers.
In March 2015, a Muslim woman in Afghanistan, named Farkhunda, was beaten to death, not by the Taliban, but by a mob in Kabul that accused her of burning the Quran.
Violence by those who see themselves as defending Islam has even unfolded in the West. A few months earlier in 2015, two Muslims gunmen killed 12 employees of the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, retribution for satirical cartoons about Muhammad in the French magazine.
Does Allah really need humans to take up arms to defend Him?
The irony of blasphemy laws, and the tragedy of these attacks carried out in supposed defense of Islam, is that the Quran time and again insists that it is God’s right, and God’s right alone, to exact vengeance.
Allah does not need Muslims to step in and punish those who insult Him. In fact, Allah does not want Muslims to do so. The God of the Quran is clear: He is the only avenger of Islam.
The case of blasphemy laws in Islam is particularly peculiar in light of the example of Muhammad himself. The Quran describes how the unbelievers in his native city of Mecca disputed his claims of prophethood and insulted him.
Quran 68:51 describes how they accused him of insanity: “Indeed, the faithless almost devour you with their eyes when they hear this Reminder, and they say, ‘He is indeed crazy.’”
The Quran does not respond by demanding that the blasphemers be killed for their insolence. It simply affirms the claims of Muhammad.
Elsewhere in the Quran, the voice of God counsels Muhammad to be patient when faced with opposition. Quran 16:126 alludes to some persecution or affliction which Muhammad has suffered from the unbelievers.
The next verse, in response, suggests that Muhammad could strike back in moderation, but should simply endure the persecution patiently: “If you retaliate, retaliate with the like of what you have been made to suffer, but if you are patient, that is surely better for the steadfast.”
This does not mean that the idea of vengeance is foreign to the Quran. The question the Quran poses is not whether offenses against Islam and Muslims should be avenged, but who should do the avenging.
And the answer is consistent: “God.”
Remarkably, and if only Boko Haram and other Salafi-Jihadis would listen, the Quran even teaches this lesson specifically about Christians. In Sura 5, God asks some questions of Jesus about those who followed him, but Jesus does not demand that the wrongdoers be punished.
He leaves their fate in God’s hands: “If Thou chastisest them, they are Thy servants; if Thou forgivest them, Thou art the All-mighty, the All-wise.”
The same lesson is taught about Muslims who are unfaithful to the laws of Islam. In chapter 5, verse 95, the Quran describes the laws of the pilgrimage to Mecca (known as the Hajj). But as for he who breaks the rules, the Quran gives no worldly punishment: “God will take vengeance on him, God is all-mighty, Vengeful.”
So what does divine vengeance look like in the Quran? Allah punishes those who offend Him in hell. The Quran not only describes paradise in vivid colors (as a place with food, drink, and women), it also describes hell in gruesome detail.
Angels of punishment will strike the damned from the front and the back. The damned will be condemned to drink boiling water and eat from a tree named Zaqqum whose fruit is like the heads of demons.
The Quran clearly considers this punishment enough for an unbeliever. Whereas the standard schools of Islam teach that someone who leaves the religion, an apostate, is to be killed, the only punishment for apostasy spoken of in the Quran is hell: “'Did you disbelieve after you had believed? Then taste the chastisement for that you disbelieved!'” (Quran 3:106).
The Quran also teaches that God need not wait for the afterlife to punish unbelievers. He is the lord of the universe and can intervene when He chooses.
A number of chapters in the Quran tell a series of tales, dubbed “punishment stories” by scholars, in which unbelieving peoples are punished for rejecting the prophet who is sent to them. Among these prophets are Biblical figures including Noah, Lot, and Moses, and others who seem to come from Arabian lore with names like Hud, Salih, and Shuʿayb.
In each story it is not the Prophet but God who intervenes. For example, God drowns Pharaoh and his army (the Biblical story of the crossing of the Sea), enemies of Moses, and then declares: “So We took vengeance on them, and drowned them in the sea, for that they cried lies to Our signs and heeded them not” (Quran 7:136). In these stories the prophets never take up arms, they never declare jihad. Instead they trust in God to avenge them.
This notion of God as an “avenger” is not new. In the Bible, when the Israelites are at the Red Sea, Moses tells them not to worry because God is on their side: “The Lord will do the fighting for you; all you need to do is to keep calm” (Exodus 14:14).
In the New Testament, Saint Paul (quoting Deuteronomy) cautions the Church not to deprive God of His right to vengeance: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
Something similar is taught in the Quran. In chapter 43, God addresses Muhammad, who is distraught by opposition to his preaching. He does not advise Muhammad to fight the unbelievers, but rather assures Him that (even if Muhammad dies first) God will exact revenge: “We will indeed take vengeance on them, whether We take you away or show you what We have promised them, for indeed We hold them in Our power” (Quran 43:41-42). The Prophet’s job is to deliver his message. He is a mere warner. God delivers the punishment.
The question, then, is whether Salafi-Jihadis or advocates for Islamic blasphemy laws really believe in the example of their Prophet.
Do they trust in God’s power? Do they believe that God can still intervene in the world, as he did in the days of Moses and the other prophets of the “punishment stories”? Do they believe that God can defend Himself?
Salafi-Jihadis deserve universal condemnation for spreading violence and bloodshed. Advocates for blasphemy laws, often seeking refuge in the argument that the insults of religion “hurt the feelings” of believers, deserve condemnation for their opposition to free speech. Yet both Salafi-Jihadis and advocates for blasphemy laws are also guilty of violating their own scripture, which teaches them above all to trust in God, the only true avenger.
Said Reynolds, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of the new book “Allah: God in the Quran.”
Original Headline: What radical Muslims get wrong about the Quran: Vengeance is reserved for God alone
Source: New York Daily News