Peace in the Qur’an


In his latest book on Muhammad, Juan Cole, Professor of History at Michigan University in Ann Arbor, has suggested interesting theories about the overall peaceful intent of the Qur’an. In times of intensified Islamophobia not only in the US his revision of certain key surahs in the context of geopolitical events in the 7th century are most welcome.

I had to think of the utter ignorance and cluelessness of former Catholic Pope Benedict XVI when he spurred one of his first scandals addressing an auditorium in his alma mater, University of Regensburg, on 12 September 2006. The topic of his lecture was about faith and reason, and Benedict wanted to make a point here: the novelty that Christianity has brought to mankind was reason. After couple of minutes Benedict attacks,

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on – perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara – by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both.[1] It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor.[2] The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur’an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between – as they were called – three “Laws” or “rules of life”: the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur’an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point – itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole – which, in the context of the issue of “faith and reason”, I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation (διάλεξις – controversy) edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: “There is no compulsion in religion”. According to some of the experts, this is probably one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur’an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the “Book” and the “infidels”, he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness, a brusqueness that we find unacceptable, on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”[3] The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. “God”, he says, “is not pleased by blood – and not actuing reasonably (σὺν λόγω) is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats… To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death…”.[4]

That, in surah 2, Muhammad concedes that “there is no compulsion in religion” has been used for centuries as proof that the prophet of Islam wasn’t honest given the widespread impression of holy war and Muhammad’s alleged command to spread his new faith by the sword. While Benedict maunders that, “according to some of the experts” surah 2 was revealed early, “when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat”, most experts would agree that the surah was instead revealed in Medina during the first two years after the Hijra, and some verses even after Muhammad’s Farewell Pilgrimage when he had returned to Mecca.

That the new faith should be spread by the sword, or through holy war, cannot be found in the Qur’an. Cole’s comprehensible approach is that he carefully re-reads the scripture but considers the prophet’s biography, al-Sira al-Nabawiyya, which had been formulated long after the unprecedented triumph of Islam and far-reaching conquests under the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs, as unreliable hagiography. Later Muslims had to paint the picture of an illiterate Prophet who was not even aware of the scriptures of the two other monotheistic religions in order to protect him from being accused of plagiarism. In contrast, Cole is right when he characterizes Muhammad, wealthy business woman Khadija’s husband, as highly skilled and educated  international tradesman who frequently traveled with his caravans to the economic and cultural centers of Palestine and the Levant. Muhammad had heard, with horror, of Jerusalem’s fall to the Sasanian general Sharbaraz in 614, just after surah ar-Rum had been revealed. Numerous neologisms in the Qur’an prove that Muhammad mastered Aramaic as well as possibly Greek. He was well aware of then popular stories like the Alexander Romance as well as the tale of the Seven Sleepers. Both stories are referred to in surah 18 (al-Kahf).

Cole interestingly interprets the conflict between Mecca and Medina as sort of a proxy war of the two main adversaries in the first half of the 7th century, the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. It becomes clear that Mecca (Sasanian sphere of influence) was the aggressor while Muhammad was able to capture Mecca in 630 without any bloodshed.

The unholy blending of what can be found in the Qur’an and highly unreliable ahadith (the traditions of the Prophet) and sira in later centuries has done lots of damage to the religion of Islam. Umayyad and Abbasid violent conquests and civil wars may remind us of another Islamic tradition, the Shi’a. The members of the Prophet’s family, the descendants of his cousin Ali and daughter Fatimah, had been subject for centuries of persecution. The Shi’a Imams had always claimed to be the rightous spiritual (and political) successors of the Prophet, having access to and being able to interpret the divine law. They were decidedly pious and defensive and all were martyred by Umayyad or Abbasid usurpers. Cole does not entertain this interesting aspect of an entirely peaceful Islam in his book.

31 December 2018 @ 11:05 am.

Last modified December 31, 2018.


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