The question for us in the twenty-first century is whether we are able to condemn the religion of Islam itself based on the reprehensible actions of terrorists who motivated by a fundamentalist view of religion. After all, every religion has had practitioners, whether done on an intrapersonal level or by a governmental entity, that have committed morally egregious behavior in the name of religion. It could very well be that in this instance, the media is inaccurately condemning a religion based on a few bad apples.
Since I am part of a religion that has been the most misunderstood in human history, I really want to be able to give Islam the benefit of a doubt. Therefore, in order to adequately answer such a question, we need to do our best to take emotion out of the analysis in order to come to as objective of an answer as possible. Emotions that typically get in the way of discussion of this topic are bigotry of Muslims, a stalwart post-9-11 patriotism, and the über-tolerance stemming from political correctness that allows an individual to tolerate the intolerable. The advantage of being libertarian is that I do not succumb to any of the aforementioned forms of emotionalism that are commonly associated with the Right or the Left in regards to this topic. With that in mind, let us take the factors in consideration that will help us arrive at an answer to the question of whether Islam is really a religion of peace.
1) The Nature of the Koran. To analogize the Koran with the Torah or the Christian Bible is, at the very least, inaccurate. According to Islamic theology, the Koran is the inerrant, literal, eternal word of Allah passed from the angel Gabriel to Mohammed. How is this different from the other Abrahamic religions? Judaism has an interpretive tradition that does not merely explain its text in a literal sense, but also has figurative, mystical, and philosophical interpretations that have evolved over the centuries. Even Christians remind me that Jesus spoke in parables, thereby admitting that figurative language exists even in Christian Scripture. The Koran, however, is a literal and fundamentalist text, applying to all Muslims for all times.
2) Abrogation. The only exception to the "the mandate doesn't change" is with the exegetical concept of نسخ (abrogation). In Sura 2:106, it states that if a more recent revelation comes in the Koran, it nullifies the previous one. Although the notion that an infinite being would literally change their minds can come off as unusual, we nevertheless have to keep this in mind with the overall context of the Koran.
3) Chronology. Most fiction and historical non-fiction is chronological. We think to ourselves, "Since the Bible is chronological, the Koran must be, too." Not the case here! Although there is some debate as to the exact chronology of the Koran, it comes as a virtual consensus that the suras (chapters) from Mecca came before the verses in Medina (see here, here, and here).
4) History of Mohammed. Chronology and abrogation are key when we consider the history of Mohammed. The peaceful verses that moderate Muslims love to cite are in the verses of Mecca, which come in the earlier part of Mohammed's history when he had no power, riches, or any way to coerce people into his way of thinking. Around the time where he heads to Medina, which also marks the time in which Mohammed ascends to power, is when we see the violent verses arise. Chronologically speaking, the last two suras in Koranic revelation are Suras 5 and 9. This context gives us insight to what have to be considered the real intentions of Islam, since these last two suras encompass the last and most recent revelation given to Mohammed. What is troubling is that Suras 5 (see verse 51) and 9 are by far the most bigoted and violent chapters of the entire text. Sura 9 is worth mentioning, since many believe it to be one of the last Suras. Unlike the other suras, Sura 9 does not begin with the preamble of بِسْمِ ٱللَّهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ (In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful), which is as troubling as it is telling. This is also the sura in which we see the call for a militaristic jihad (9:5, 25, 29, 73, 123), as opposed to the self-struggle that apologists discuss. In short, the principle of abrogation has rendered the peaceful verses nullified by the violent ones.
[Before I continue with my fifth point, I would like to make a point. Dennis Prager always said that he would not judge the religion itself, but only its practitioners. I cannot be as dismissive of what the Koran has to say since the Koran is the primary impetus for influencing Islamic culture, not to mention current international affairs. However, I will now focus on the practitioners themselves since they are interconnected with what we see in Islamic theology and jurisprudence.]
5) Islam Practiced Throughout History. I will admit that if I were a Jew living in the Medieval Ages and I had to choose between living in a Christian society and an Islamic one, it would be an Islamic one. That is not because it is such a utopia of tolerance, but because it was the lesser of two evils. Christendom gave Jews the choice of "convert or die." Islam at least provided Jews with the option of living in a subordinate, second class status called أهل الذمة. And in some instances, Jews were even able to climb somewhat up the social ladder. This, of course, was contingent upon the surrounding political climate, which is what drove the overall extent of oppression of the non-Muslim. I will direct you towards my previous blog entry on the topic, but it should go without saying that living in a pre-modern Islamic society was anything but a democratic, free society that was tolerant of people of all religions.
6) Islam Practiced Today. This is not a question of whether there are moderate Muslims. Of course there are! There's a reason is why a lot of the Muslims that moved to the West, and that was either because they wanted to get away from the authoritarian grip of theocracy or wanted to be able to practice a more moderate, Westernized version of their religion that better co-exists with its non-Muslim neighbors in peace and harmony. It's not the microcosm of certain, honest Muslim individuals that worries me since individuals can live how they choose here in America. It's about the global macrocosm, which is why I find it to be more intriguing to see how practice of Islam is in countries in which Muslims are the majority because then there cannot be any griping of any Islamaphobia, alleged or otherwise. This topic merits further detail, much further than I will be able to give here today, which is why I can foresee further elaboration in future blog entries. The point I want to drive home is that in these nations, the Shar'ia law that Mohammed instated is the same one that is practiced today. That means enacting such laws as that a woman's testimony is half of that of a man's (2:282), domestic abuse is acceptable (4:34), polygamy with up to four wives (4:3), punishing homosexuals (4:15-16), and amputation for theft (5:33). The fact that Muslim nations partake in actions commonly associated with ancient times should not shock us. Going back to Point #1, the words in the Koran have no historical context because they are eternal and should be applied as such. Therefore, the penalty for cutting off one's hand for theft is as applicable back in 622 C.E. as it is now.
But what about Muslims in the West that want to co-exist? Taking a look at Europe right now, Islam cannot remain its status quo and expect to cultivate such a climate. Can Islam have a Reformation much like the Christians had a few hundred years back? It's possible. But to have a peaceful Islam would be such a radical departure from the orthodox Islam that has been practiced for centuries. Why? Because as hard as it is for certain Westerners to believe, fundamental Islam is mainstream Islam. Mohammed is considered to be the human being par excellence, at least from an Islamic viewpoint, and as such, is the human being to imitate. If one wants to be "a good Muslim," that entails imitating his violent and uncouth ways. Making Islam peaceful would violate the First Pillar of Islam, which is لا إله إلا الله محمد رسول الله ("there is none but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet") because based on the exegesis of abrogation, peace was superseded by violence.
What about Sufism? Sufism has been around since the last millennium. It is considered by some to not be truly Islamic. And with being around for that length of time, you think that it would have mustered more influence if peace, tranquility, and tolerance were truly goals in Islam. But being a minority within the Muslim community, this seems dubious, especially since Sufism is the only sect teaching love and tolerance.
Conclusion: If Islam were currently a religion of peace, shouldn't it be self-evident? Why do Muslims have to keep reminding us? Maybe it has to do something with the Koran. Within its chronological context, it illustrates that it is not a peaceful text. It might be its treatment of non-Muslims throughout history. Or maybe the skepticism is based on the fact that out of 47 countries with a Muslim majority, with Indonesia as an exception, none of them are considered free.
Now, if Islam were to become tolerant and loving, it would need a serious re-vamping of Shar'ia law. This would have to be done while ignoring centuries of Islamic practice and jurisprudence, which is tantamount to violating one of the Five Pillars of Islam. If such reform were to happen, however, the extent of reform and standing up to the establishment would have to take place on a historically unprecedented level. Short of that, it would be safe to assume that Islam will continue with its overall status of being a religion that greatly encourages violence and intolerance.