Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Evolution of God: Muhammad, the Koran, and Jihad

Robert Wright continues his description of the development of religion in his book The Evolution of God. Here we discuss his evaluation of the Koran. He proposes that the Koran should be interpreted within the context of Muhammad’s life and the state of Islam at the time the various texts were written. This is consistent with his thesis that “heavenly” events are determined by what is happening on the ground. He also suggests that a broader perspective in examining the violence “encouraged” by the Koran will bring a new understanding.

“The Koran consists of ‘suras’—chapters—that reflect oral proclamations by Muhammad. They are arranged, roughly speaking, from longest to shortest. Yet Muhammad’s earliest proclamations tended to be short and his later ones long, so if you want to read the Koran in chronological order, you’re better off reading it backward than forward.”

“Better still is to read the actual order of its composition....To read the Koran in light of this consensus [on chronology] —moving from earliest suras to latest ones—is to watch Muhammad’s career, and Islam’s birth unfold. This is the key to seeing how the Koran, like the Bible, came to encompass wild fluctuations of moral tone.”
Muslim tradition places Muhammad’s first revelation in his fortieth year and around 609 CE. He would live for another twenty years continuing to receive revelations. Roughly half that time was spent as a street prophet trying to accumulate followers and convince the dubious of his authenticity. The second half of his career had him transforming from street preacher to city administrator, to warrior leader, to ruler of an Islamic state. It is not surprising that the nature and tone of his proclamations would vary as they spanned this evolution.

The texts contained in the Koran have a greater claim to fidelity than those of the Old or New Testaments.
“Parts of it may have been written down during Muhammad’s life, perhaps under his supervision. Almost certainly some of it was being written down shortly after his death, and many scholars believe it was essentially complete within twenty years of his death.”
Wright provides many details of Muhammad’s life and correlates them with the revelations contained in the Koran. Our interest here is in the issue of violence towards nonbelievers that is associated with the Koran and Islam.

The author uses the term Meccan and Medinan to associate with the early and late stages of Muhammad’s career. His time as a street preacher was spent in Mecca; he developed into a religious and civil leader after moving to Medina.
“....the difference between Muhammad in Mecca and Muhammad in Medina is the difference between a prophet and a politician. In Medina, Muhammad started building an actual government, and the Medinan suras reflect that.”
Wright claims that the most quoted exhortations to violence against infidels are taken out of context. Some are actually descriptions of the violence God will deliver as punishment.
“This is the moral irony of the Koran. On the one hand it is vengeful; people who read it after hearing only whitewashed summaries are often surprised at the recurring air of retribution. Yet most of the retributive passages don’t encourage retribution; almost always, it is God, not any Muslim, who is to punish the infidels. And during the Meccan years—most of the Koran—Muslims are encouraged to resist the impulse of vengeance.”

“The principle at work here is familiar. The interpretation of god’s will is obedient to the facts on the ground and how they’re perceived. The live-and-let-live philosophy flourishes when there seems nothing to be gained by fighting.”

“After moving to medina and mobilizing its resources, Muhammad would, like the Israelites of Deuteronomy, would find war a more auspicious prospect. And, as we’ll see, God’s views on fighting infidels would change accordingly, as they did in the Bible. But so long as Muhammad remained in Mecca, fighting was unappealing and religious tolerance expansive.”
While in Medina, Muhammad spent much of his time in battle with various enemies. The Medinan suras leave no doubt that Muhammad believed that he had license from God to kill infidels. Since religion and state were usually correlated at the time, enemies and infidels tended to be one and the same. Wright says that the real issue to any exhortation to kill infidels was the extent to which it was to be applied.
“The question is how restricted the license was. When God tells Muhammad to go kill infidels is he saying that killing infidels is always good? Or is God more like an American officer before the Normandy invasion exhorting his troops to go kill Germans—not because killing Germans is always a good thing, and not because killing all Germans is a good thing even at the moment, but rather because, so long as a war is on, killing the enemy is the job at hand?”
Wright gives examples of several of the most quoted excerpts from the Koran that are used to spread the belief that “killing of infidels” is encouraged. He points out that most of the verses quoted are followed by subsequent verses that put a limit to the killing once the battle is over and won. For example:
“’When ye encounter the infidels, strike off their heads till ye have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters. And afterwards let there either be free dismissals or ransomings, till the war hath laid down its burdens.’”

“The Koran contains a number of such eminently misquotable lines. Repeatedly Muhammad makes a declaration that, in unalloyed form, sounds purely belligerent—and then proceeds to provide the alloy. Thus ‘And think not that the infidels shall escape Us!...Make ready then against them what force ye can, and strong squadrons whereby ye may strike terror into the enemy of God and your enemy.’ Then about thirty words later: ‘And if they lean to peace, lean thou also to it; and put thy trust in God.’”
Wright concludes that there is no clear message in the Koran that exhorts his followers to anything resembling the concept of jihad that is current today. Unfortunately, the issue in the Muslim world became murkier when they allowed the hadith to be used for deciding religious questions. The hadith is a collection of claims by people of things they heard the prophet say.

The problem with religions based on written words is that words need to be interpreted. There is plenty of historical evidence to indicate that when one wants to justify what one wants to do, there is always an appropriate interpretation to be found.

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