Transcript of my presentation at an Interfaith Discussion on “So called verses of violence”
Salam, Shalom and Peace!
Thank you for that gracious introduction. I often times worry that my introduction is longer than my speech itself!
Rabbi Marc Schneier started with the story of myself when I visited his synagogue, so I wanted to also mention when I wanted to go to his synagogue for the first time. A Muslim stood up and said,” Are you serious?! Do you think they will open the door for you?” I asked why. He replied, “Because they believe they are the chosen people!”. So I said to him, “Listen: open the Qur’an, chapter 3, verse 1:10, and it said “you have been involved in the best nation”. So we are the best nation, they are the chosen people, and so let the best meet the chosen!
Reverend L’Hereaux, thank you for talking about the Old and New Testament, I will be proud to talk about the final Testament tonight; so we have old, new, and final. I wish to say that when you ask me about Islam, my answer is, “Islam is about embracing the Law of Moses and the Law of Jesus Christ. This is what Islam is all about. We are embracing Judaism and Christianity. Thank you again for having me tonight, it is an honor for me.
It is very unfortunate that extremist tendencies exist in our community, and this is certainly caused by many factors. But I think that one of the most dangerous factors is religious factors itself. These factors are caused by either misunderstanding, or understanding the religious texts out of context. It is very, very important. I think Muslims have experienced, especially after September 11th and afterward, that we are all perpetrated in the name of our God. It is very dangerous because when religious extremists and extremism is caused by mythical factors, it can have a negative effect. If you remember the mosque near ground zero, Park 51, it was political and ended as the political heat ended. But when radicals’ misunderstanding causes the extremism, it is a very dangerous thing because it remains there. The Torah hasn’t changed, nor has the Bible and the Qur’an. If our understanding is being hijacked by those thoughts, it becomes very dangerous because it does not change until the doomsday, if you believe in the doomsday.
Let me go to the Holy Qur’an, in the last testament. The whole idea of Islam and the Holy Qur’an is about peace. Unfortunately, there are verses, as in the case of the Torah and the Gospel, that talk about war. In many ways, we listen to the people who talk about violence in Islam; one particular verse that they use goes “and slay them wherever you find them”. I will talk about this later on. This particular portion of the verse in the Qur’an is absolutely similar to what our brother mentioned earlier. It is read partially. (repeats verse in Arabic). This quote “and slay them wherever you find them”: they didn’t write what came before or after. It is very dangerous in reading out Holy book in that way. As I said earlier, the ideals of Islam is all peace, the meaning of Islam is peace. The verses in the Qur’an are related to peace, mercy and compassion.
The Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, is known as the mercy to all of humanity. In fact, there is a beautiful story in reference to this topic, that in one of the wars, a combatant enemy surrendered. One of his companions, was not sure if he gave up sincerely or not and killed him. Upon hearing this the Prophet was so upset, and asked the companion who killed the enemy: “why did you kill him?”. He responded: “he gave up not because he was sincere but was scared”. The Prophet then asked him “did you open his chest?”
The prophet was upset because it was simply against the ideals of Islam of compassion and mercy. There is a verse in the Qur’an, chapter 60, verse 18: God doesn’t forbid that you deal with them kindly and justly”. Dealing with them with kindness and with justice is certainly the basis of Islamic teaching. It is mistakenly understood by many that Islam had been forcefully spread out to people. Some cases may have happened in the past , we will not say that Muslims are immune to mistakes. However, the Holy Qur’an in this case is very clear in Chapter 2, verse number 256: “No compulsion in faith”.
The question is, why are religious texts believed to be the source of violence?
I think that, in which the Rabbi and Reverend mentioned, but I will add on from an Islamic perspective. Besides the reading, I think the language itself is very, very important, especially in the Holy Qur’an. I would like to cite one example that many Muslims misunderstand in reference to our relation to the Jews and Christians. “Do not take Jews and Christians as “awliyaa”. If you look at an English translation of this word, it is simply translated as “friends”. So when extremists look at this and do not understand Arabic, they come to the conclusion that we cannot be friends with a Jew or a Christian. How it is possible to marry women from among the Jewish or Christian community, if this is the case?! According to the orthodox understanding of marriage; a Muslim man can marry a Jew or Christian woman. So if you have a wife that happens to follow Judaism or Christianity, and you come home at night, you never smile to her. The wife would say “Honey what happened? You never smile to me”. Your response would be “sorry, I can’t do that because we are not friends according to my Qur’an”.
And so the understanding of the language itself is very, very essential in order to understand our Holy Qur’an.
The last example I will give is: Slay them wherever you find them”. Chapter 9, verse 5. If you read the verses before that, it will be very clear, as well as the verses that follow.
Before going into that, I would like to speak about a concept that many of you are misunderstanding: the concept of Jihad. For many, when you hear Jihad, it is usually followed by thoughts of people going out there and killing oneself and everyone else. Yet, the translation of Jihad to “Holy War” itself is wrong, and certainly misleading. The word Jihad does not mean Holy War; it simply means to struggle, to strive; to exert any possible means of goodness individually, as well as collectively; To achieve goodness individually, as well as collectively. Chapter 25, verse 52 states: “Strive against them with the most struggle”. At that time, there’s no war, no physical struggle. This particular verse was revealed to Mohammad to command him to struggle against the Pagans at the time with a big Jihad. So what does it mean, this particular verse? It is about patience, wisdom, perseverance; it is about being rational in communication of the people. That is the meaning of Jihad here, from the very beginning.
Now, we don’t deny the existence of Jihad being portrayed in the Qur’an as physical engagement, because we do find verses speaking about that Jihad also means physical struggle, battle, or war. But the most fundamental real meaning of Jihad is spiritual one. That is why, in my own understanding, Jihad has three dimensions. One, it is spiritual, also called “Mujaahadah”. Late night prayer or fasting during Ramadan can be examples of this. The second one is called “Ijtihad” and it is known as intellectual Jihad. Seeking knowledge in Islam is obligatory, one of the most important injunction in Islam. The third is physical struggle. Physical struggle has a lot of meanings; it is necessary and cannot be avoided. Sometimes this means that you have to engage in war, or fight. An so let me talk now about war in Islam.
According to scholars, the first Qur’an, the first verse about war is in chapter 22, verses 3, 9, and 4. God says, “Permission is given to those who are fought against. Because they have been wronged; and surely Allah will give them victory”. Remember the quote “permission is given”, The second verse says, “those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly because of saying our Lord is Allah, for had it not been that Allah accepts one people by the means of another, within Churches, synagogues, and mosques, or in the name of Allah, would surely have been destroyed.”
These two verses of the Holy Qur’an produce two conclusions: one, war in Islam is defensive in nature. You cannot instigate war with someone else. There is permission to fight when you have been wronged. Two, that the purpose of war in Islam is to stop further destruction. I think the example o this is when the United States intervened in Bosnia to prevent further genocide perpetrated by Serbs. I hoped that someone else intervened earlier before the further destruction of the Jews during the Holocaust. This is what the Qur’an says; “it is not because God prohibits or checks one set of people with one another”.. War is allowed, but limited. This is the first verse about war.
The second one is in chapter two, verses one to 93. God says, “And fight those who fight you, but do not transgress the limit. God indeed does not like those who transgress the limit”. Then in the second verse, which some take partially, and slay them where so ever you find them.. Kill them wherever you find them, where they have turned you out. And fight not with them, unless they fight you there. If they attack you, then kill them. Such is the disbelievers”. At the end, “but if they cease, Allah is most forgiving, most merciful”.
Now, from these three verses of the Holy Qur’an that talk about war, I would like to underline something. One, war is a defensive nature; “fight those who fight you”. Otherwise, don’t. “Do not transgress the limit”. In other words, there are ethical rules that you have to follow, even when engaging in war in a battlefield. That’s what our verse is mentioned in the Hadith, that when you go out to fight enemies, do not kill women, children, the elderly, the worshipping. Do not cut down trees, kill animals, or poison wells. This is the Hadith mentioned by the Prophet. These are ethical rules in war, and the meaning of “don’t transgress the limit”. Two, it means that war is needed to stop further damages. Third, and it is very important: compassion is universal, even in time of war. That is why the Qur’an says, “if they cease, God is forgiving, most merciful”. This is what war in Islam is.
There is a misinterpretation of Islam by many Muslims, from September 11th to today, that use war in the name of the religion. If we just come back and want to read the Holy Qur’an from our original sources, we will be fully aware that it certainly opposed their behaviors. I think we have that responsibility to teach our people about the Qur’an, as we engage in the interfaith talks, it is one of the most effective ways to educate our communities. Currently Rabbi Marc Schneier and my self are working very closely in co-authoring a book titled: “Sons of Abraham”, and hopefully it will be one of the most important books in this path. Thank you!