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January 20, 2002
Interpretation and Exceptionalism

By Asma Barlas


A forward from Israel Shamir:

Dear friends, In these days of endless vilification of Islam, it makes sense to know answers to some standard anti-Muslim accusations. This piece is one of the best and brightest; well written and enlightening, without too much of apologetics.

Interpretation and Exceptionalism
by Asma Barlas

Talk given at Ithaca College, Oct. 29th, 2001

The title of my talk is On Interpretation and Exceptionalism and it deals both with the way in which most people in the U.S. perceive Islam, and the way in which Islam in particular, its scripture, the Qur'an deals with the concept of jihad.

As someone who has been asked to speak about Islam only a couple of times in the ten years I've been at Ithaca College, it's obvious to me that this new interest in it is the result not of positive developments but of people's desire to make sense of the attacks on the U.S.allegedly by a group of Muslim men, which has left them fearful, angry, and bewildered.

The irony is that looking to Islam alone may not provide the answers, or the closure, that people are seeking.

As Robin Wright says, 'mining the Quran for incendiary quotes is essentially pointless. Religions evolve, and there is usually enough ambiguity in their founding scriptures to let them evolve in any direction. If Osama Bin Laden were a Christian, and he still wanted to destroy the World Trade Center, he would cite Jesus' rampage against the money-changers. If he didn't want to destroy the World Trade Center, he could stress the Sermon on the Mount.'

Even if one doesn't agree with this view, the point is that every religion or secular ideology, for that matter offers the possibility of violence and peace, oppression and liberation, depending on who is interpreting it, how, and in what particular contexts. As I always say, there is little family resemble between modern liberation theology and the Christianity of the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Conquest.

And yet, ignoring that every religion is open to multiple interpretations, many people are attacking Muslims for making 'it sound like there are two versions of the Koran floating around out there. If so, what is the difference between the Koran that the Terrorists are reading, and the Koran that the rest of the Muslim world is reading? . . . I need to have the 'real' Islam please stand up.' (This is from an article forwarded to me by a friend with no title or bye-line).

The same author who says he's a Catholic also says he doesn't 'want to hear [the] history about the Crusades, or the U.S. foreign policy crap, or . . . comparisons [of Islam] to Christianity and Judaism.' Thus, while wanting Muslims to explain which Qur'an we are reading and which is the real Islam, he himself chooses not to explain the difference between the bible that the Crusaders and Conquistadors were reading and the bible he has been reading, nor to convince others why his Christianity is the 'real' one.

Such a strategy not only lays upon Muslims a burden that believers in other religions refuse to bear themselves, but it also obscures the fact that the bloodiest conflicts, like the two World Wars, have had secular, not religious roots. Even those conflicts we think of as religious can be shown to be about power and resources, not merely ideology. This is no less true of the Crusades, than it is of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, or Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, or even the attacks of September 11th.

We might, therefore, be better served by trying to understand the political and economic conditions that engender conflicts and religious extremism; but this would require us to focus on the nature of our own foreign policies and also to recognize the complicity of secularism, capitalism, and liberal democracy in creating a global division of labor that, in privileging the few at the expense of the many, has provided the breeding grounds for much of modern day extremism, religious or not.

Second, even if we are to refocus attention away from politics and economics by looking only to religion to explain the events of 9/11th, I doubt that the confusion, hostility and fear most people are feeling these days are conducive to understanding Islam or for engaging in an honest dialogue with Muslims.

Ironically, even those people who are not necessarily angry with Islam will find it hard to have such a dialogue so as long as they continue to assume that learning about Islam will enable them to make sense of 9/11 inasmuch as this expectation arises in the assumption that there is a connection between Islam and terrorism. It is this assumption that reveals the extent to which people think of Islam as exceptional and, in so thinking, do deep epistemic violence to it. Let me clarify with an example.

Terrorism and Islam's Exceptionalism

Modern forms of terrorism were introduced into the Middle East in the 1940s by Jewish groups in then British-occupied Palestine. It was the Irgun, the Stern gang, and the Hagana that began the practice of bombing 'gathering places [and] crowded Arab areas [in an attempt to] terrorize the Arab community' (Smith, 1992: 19; 140). The Stern gang even attacked Jewish banks, resulting in 'Jewish loss of life' (120). The Irgun, as we know, 'slaughtered about 250 men, women and children whose mutilated bodies were stuffed down wells' in the village of Dair Yassin (143).

Even though many such terror tactics continued until fairly recent times, people in the U.S. did not put world Jewry on call by asking Jews to explain what Judaism has to say about killing innocent civilians. People may have denounced these terrorist groups freedom fighters to many but they did not call on all Jews to explain which Torah or Talmud the Jewish terrorists were reading, or asked the 'real' Judaism to 'stand up.'

Why, then, this assault on Muslims to explain what their 'bible' as that savant, Larry King, calls the Qur'an teaches about violence? (He even badgered Hanan Ashrawi, assuming that because she's Palestinian, she's a Muslim, even though she's not.) The same people who say (like the anonymous author I quoted earlier does) that they don't give a 'rat' ---' about Islam nonetheless are shrieking for the 'real' Islam to stand up!

In an atmosphere where only Muslims are expected to keep protesting our humanity and to defend our religion, my politics dictated that I should not speak at all in any forum on Islam. But, my religion teaches the jihad of knowledge and, as a Muslim, this jihad is obligatory for me. That is why I am here today, to speak to you about jihad.

Jihad in the Qur'an

The word jihad means 'striving' or 'struggle,' and not 'war.' So, the Qur'an speaks of the jihad of the soul, of the tongue, of the pen, of faith, of morality, and so on. This is the 'greater jihad' and it is what allows us Muslims to actualize our identity as Muslims.

There is also the jihad of arms whose aim is to struggle in the cause of God; this is the 'smaller jihad' and it permits fighting as a means of self-protection. There are a number of verses in the Qur'an about this form of jihad and I will quote two of the main ones:

'Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged and verily God has indeed the power to succor them those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, 'Our Sustainer is God.' For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, all monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques in all of which God's name is abundantly extolled would surely have been destroyed [before] now' (22: 39-40).

The second verse is, '. . . fight in God's cause against those who wage war against you, but do not commit aggression for, verily, God does not love aggressors. And 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' (2:190).

Although references to killing make most of us recoil, it's important not to let our horror become an alibi for refusing to recognize some transparent truths.

First, one can kill huge numbers of people, while also avoiding any casualties to oneself, without even fighting a war. Consider the economic sanctions on Iraq that are killing off nearly 5,000 children a month, all because our government opposes one man. My point is not to justify war, but to draw attention to one of its faces that we routinely ignore.

Second, Islam did not invent war; it merely teaches a specific approach to it. This approach forbids aggression, or attacking one's enemies unawares, and it also instructs Muslims to cease hostilities if aggression against them ceases. The last point may seem unimportant until one recalls that the U.S. destroyed Nagasaki and Hiroshima after the Japanese had broadcast their terms of surrender. More recently, the U.S. army shot about 100,000 Iraqi troops retreating from the battlefield during the Gulf War, with senior U.S. generals calling it a 'duck shoot.'

Third, it is not just any type of aggression Muslims must resist, but religious persecution. Thus, jihad is not for extending territories, protecting political or economic interests, or killing one's foes, reasons for which all nations, including Muslim, generally go to war.

Fourth, the Qur'an also teaches the precepts of forgiveness and peace. As it says, 'Since good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou evil with something that is better, and lo, he between whom and thyself was enmity may then become as though he had always been close unto thee, a true friend' (41:34); and '. . .when you are greeted with a greeting of peace, answer with an even better greeting, or at least the like thereof' (4: 86).

Of course, quoting verses selectively from the Qur'an is not the best way to convince people of the truth of one's argument, much less to impart a holistic understanding of its teachings, but such are the limitations of a ten-minute talk. The point I want to stress is that the Qur'an asks us to read it for its best meanings and it defines Islam as 'sirat ul mustaqeem,' the straight path, the middle path, the path of moderation, not excess.

There is no question that some Muslims have fallen into extremism and excess and there is also no question that we need to do a better job of reading the Qur'an for liberation than we have done so far. This requires us to struggle constantly to try and redefine our understanding of it. That is why I'm never averse to anyone wanting to know what Islam 'really' teaches because such questions can help in that definitional struggle, or jihad.

But, unfortunately, many people who are beating up on Muslims today to identify the 'real' Islam are not really interested in our doing so; rather, they use such questions to cast the proverbial first stone at us. To such people, I would say, you have no right to ask this question until you also are willing to assume the responsibility of asking 'which is the 'real' U.S.: the one that advocates freedom, civil liberties, and democracy at home, or the one that carries out wars and violence and repression abroad?' Surely, there is much to be learned by asking the 'real' U.S. also to 'please stand up.'