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Houston, We Have a [Muslim] Problem

As someone who has spent the last six years of my life studying the history and culture of Muslim societies, I find myself increasingly troubled by the way in which Americans, and particularly Christians, speak about Islam and Muslims. When Christians, especially those with a conservative worldview, write or speak about Islam, you typically find the same problematic sources and anti-Muslim activists being utilized over and over. It is rare to see a Christian engaging with al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE), arguably the most important Muslim intellectual ever, or Seyyed Hossein Nasr, one of the most prolific and influential Muslim scholars of the contemporary period. Very rarely are faithful Muslims given an opportunity to speak for their own tradition in Christian discourses on Islam. Christians far too often rely on ex-Muslims who have firmly denounced Islam (imagine if only ex-Christians turned atheists were used to form an opinion about Christianity) and pseudo-scholars to form their view. If we are to be intellectually honest, these practices must end. This article is an exhortation to my Christian brothers and sisters to open our ears and listen to what our Muslim neighbors say about their own tradition.

Perhaps a good place to start is with a recent conversation I had with an ordained Southern Baptist minister on social media. His position was simple, in fact too simple: “if you want to understand why Muslims commit acts of violence, all you have to do is read the Qur’an, it’s all there” (I’m paraphrasing here). This is indeed the most prominent argument used against Islam and Muslims, but it’s also the most problematic. The problem is most pronounced among those that follow a literal and fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible, those who view the Bible as the “inerrant Word of God” with a capital “W” (John’s gospel calls Jesus the “Word of God”) and see the King James Version as the “only valid” English interpretation. These Christians project their view of the Bible onto the Qur’an. Thus, Christians become “non-Muslim Islamic fundamentalists” who believe that any Muslims who doesn’t kill non-Muslims is just a “liberal” or “moderate” who doesn’t take his/her own holy book seriously.1

Because of this fundamentalist Christian worldview, any discussion focusing on the context of a particular Quranic verse and how Muslims understand that context is quickly shut down. The Christian (let’s call him “Tom” for now) will refuse to listen because, according to them, the Qur’an “clearly says X” in plain and irrefutable English. Tom may respond, “No context can justify X whatsoever.” The obvious problem here is that Christians have no right to interpret the Qur’an for Muslims. Islam is what Muslims say it is, not Christians. Then the discussion may move to the Bible and how certain verses can lead to an interpretation that supports violence or something else unpalatable. Of course, this is completely unacceptable to Tom who scolds anyone who brings this up. Tom will give a detailed account of how to properly understand the verse in question and how any reading that led to such atrocities, slavery for example, was a heretical reading to begin with. Tom will show how Jesus fulfilled the law, eliminating the need to stone adulterers or do any of the other nasty stuff the Mosaic Law calls for. Tom will present a very detailed, thoughtful and nuanced treatment of the Bible. Ironically, Tom will not allow the Qur’an to be given the same treatment by a Muslim interpreter; and this is precisely where the problem lies.

We, as Christians, simply have no right to make judgment claims about the Qur’an. It’s not our scripture. It doesn’t belong to us. It is not what we say it is; it is what Muslims say it is. This point is absolutely crucial. Just as we would not accept Muslims telling us what our scripture means, we must not become non-Muslim Islamic fundamentalists by telling Muslims that they are reading their own holy book wrong. We must not tell Muslims that Daesh (ISIS), Boko Haram, and al-Qaeda are the only “true” Muslims and that the vast body of Islamic exegesis is wrong. It is not our right.

While it is certainly true that Muslims view the Qur’an as the direct word of God dictated to Muhammad via the Archangel Gabriel, the idea of “sola scriptura” must be considered a post-Reformation Western Protestant concept foreign to the Islamic hermeneutical tradition. Jonathan Brown, an Islamic studies professor at Georgetown University, states that “early on, Sunni Muslims declared that it is the Sunna that rules over the Qur’an, not the Qur’an that rules over the Sunna.”2 The term “Sunna” needs further clarification here. Sunna refers to the body of traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad, either in the form of hadith, which are statements attributed to Muhammad himself, or practices. In hadith collections, one can find statements as violent, if not more so, than those found in the Qur’an. However, these collections are massive and one can find just as many statements urging peace, restraint, mercy, and justice. Just as with the Qur’an, one can cherry-pick statements to justify just about any ideology.

The hadith collections were compiled over a lengthy period of time long after the death of Muhammad, so naturally a process was needed to determine which statements are to be considered valid. The process developed focused on the isnad (chain of transmission) and the credibility of the transmitter. Shi’ite Muslims do not accept Sunni hadith collections and Sunnis do not accept those of the Shi’a. While many conservative/traditionalist Muslims see the hadith collections as a closed subject, revisionist projects are taking place like this one in Turkey. The important thing to note here is that Muslims use hadith statements to establish the context of a particular revelation in the Qur’an. Brown further elaborates on the importance of context for Muslim theologians:

Muslim scholars did not read Quranic verses in a vacuum or assume that their meaning was independent of context. They relied on identifying the ‘occasions of revelation (asbab al-nazul),’ or the situations in which and the causes for which Quranic verses were revealed. They also asserted that verses of the Qur’an revealed later in the Prophet’s career could overrule or adjust instructions given in earlier verses, a phenomenon known as abrogation (naskh). In one sense, this attention to context and development was essential. Many Quranic verses only make sense when taken in the context of specific circumstances, debates or battles of the Prophet’s life. For example, the context of revelation alerted Muslim scholars that the verse “Fighting has been prescribed for you though it be hateful to you” (Qur’an 2:216) was only directed at the Prophet and his companions at a certain point in their conflict with the Meccans. It was not a general commandment to fight for all time.3

It must be noted here that the most fundamentalist/militant Muslims have used the concept of abrogation to argue that all verses in the Qur’an calling for peace, tolerance, and even pluralism are abrogated by the harsher verses. This same argument is then picked up by Christians seeking to demonize Islam. The problem with this argument is that there is not a single verse in the Qur’an that specifically singles out any other verses for abrogation or even provides instructions regarding the issue. There are only verses that say that abrogation exists. Thus, it is left up to Muslims themselves to determine how abrogation is to be applied, which has led Muslims to come to widely divergent conclusions. Another Muslim scholar, Farid Esack, says of abrogation, “there is probably no other genre in Qur’anic studies to rival it in confusion regarding its validity, meaning, and applicability.”4

Another concept that Christians must take care not to introduce into Islam is that of “orthodoxy.” According to Esack, this term itself is “alien to Islamic scholarly tradition and words used for a similar effect are ‘qawl al-salaf al-salih’ (the opinion of the righteous predecessors) or ‘jamhur’ (the people).”5 Islam has never had anything close to the Ecumenical Councils found in Christianity and the unity of the umma (term used to describe all Muslims collectively) disintegrated during the era of the first four Caliphs, never to recover. Islam has always been a highly decentralized tradition. This does not imply, however, that Islamic hermeneutics have been largely chaotic. There certainly has been some type of consensus on many issues, especially within particular theological schools, but there has never been anything similar to the ecclesiastical organizations found in Christianity. Comparative theology and other forms of comparative study can be fruitful as long as one is careful not to impose a Christian understanding onto Islamic principles.

The other major problem with Christian discourses on Islam is the lack of Muslim voices. I have written elsewhere (see here) about the problem of fake ex-Muslims. Several of these men, including Walid Shoebat, Kamal Saleem, and Ergun and Emir Caner, have been given a platform at churches all over the United States to spread anti-Muslim propaganda. In addition to these men, Christian conservatives have given several other so-called “experts” with ideological biases far too much attention. For example, Walid Phares, who served as a foreign policy advisor to Mitt Romney during his 2012 presidential bid and appears frequently on Fox News, has ties to a Lebanese Christian militia that committed war crimes during the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s.6 Another problematic “expert” is Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Ali is a Somali-born ex-Muslim turned atheist. Ali does have an important story to tell given the suffering she endured at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists in Somalia and her hatred of Islam is natural due to her experiences with Muslims. Still, we must be careful not to take her experience as normative. Furthermore, there are numerous female Muslim scholars, such as Kecia Ali, Leila Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, and Amina Wadud, doing excellent research on topics such as female genital mutilation, “honor” killings, and other practices harmful to women.

One of the worst offenders is Robert Spencer, the founder and operator of Jihad Watch, an anti-Muslim blog. Spencer trolls the internet searching for every single instance of violence and buffoonery committed by Muslims around the world in order to demonize the entire faith. Spencer is not a scholar. In fact, his only qualification seems to be his master’s degree in religious studies from UNC-Chapel Hill, where his studies focused on early Christianity and not Islam. This doesn’t stop many conservative Christians from considering him the most important and authoritative Islamic studies scholar. In lieu of balanced nuance scholarship, his books and articles offer a simple refute-and-rebut style of polemic synonymous with Fox News and right-wing talk radio. Spencer has not published a single peer-reviewed article or book on the topic of Islam. The only check-and-balance his work must go through is the ideologically friendly publishers that print his books.

Almost without exception, when Christians discuss shari’a only one book is discussed, The Reliance of the Traveller, as if this one work is the end all and be all definitive guide to shari’a. Imagine trying to fit the entirety of the English Common Law into one volume. That would be the equivalent. One would need to become familiar with dozens of works just to begin to scratch the surface of all that encompasses shari’a. In the same manner, Christians commenting on Islam typically favor a limited selection of major figures in Islamic history to the detriment of other more important figures. The most prominent examples here are Ibn Tamiyya (1263-1328 CE) and Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966 CE). These two men are deeply influential among militant Muslim groups and are important for understanding their ideology. However, before the modern era Sufism (Islamic mysticism) was the most popular expression of Islamic piety and even to this day scholars estimate that more than half of all Muslims have at least some relationship with Sufism in one form or another.8 This means that figures such as Ibn ‘Arabi, Rumi, and al-Ghazali have had a much bigger impact on Islamic thought than Qutb and Ibn Tamiyya.

One last point should be made before concluding. I have been called an “apologist” for Islam on more than one occasion. However, that accusation belies the true meaning of the term “apologist.” An apologist is someone who defends his or her faith against those seeking to discredit it. The opposite of an apologist is a polemicist, the vast majority of Christian writings on Islam fall into the latter category. What I do is neither polemics nor apologetics. I neither promote the idea that “Islam means peace” (the apologetic angle) or “Islam is evil” (the polemical angle). I simply let Muslims speak for themselves (the scholarly angle). I make no claim that there are not bad Muslims or ugly interpretations of Islam, I just take care not to privilege those voices as the “only” or “most valid” form of Islam. I am not a Muslim and thus have no right to say what Islam is or is not. If I’m an apologist for anything, it’s the Christian faith, though being Christian does not mean I have to be disingenuous about what other faiths teach. As an aspiring scholar, I would betray my profession by doing so.

It is so rare to find anything scholarly written about Islam in popular conservative sources such as National Review or First Things (two noteworthy exceptions here are Thomas Kidd, a historian of Christianity at Baylor University, and Mark Movsesian, a law professor at St. John’s University who frequently contributes to First Things) that I find myself jumping for joy and doing cartwheels when I do find it. Perhaps it is time for Islam to be given the same treatment from Christians that Judaism receives from them today.

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Chris Smith

Chris Smith

Chris is currently employed as a library specialist for Middle Eastern language materials at Duke University. Prior to that he spent two years as a teaching assistant and Ph.D. student in Islamic Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. He holds a M.A. in Religion from Wake Forest and a B.A. in Global Studies and Religious Studies from UNC-Chapel Hill. Chris has two daughters and currently resides in Chapel Hill, NC.