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How Should Young Muslims on the Streets of Woolwich Be Reading the Qur'an

05/06/2013 16:50 BST | Updated 05/08/2013 10:12 BST
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When I first saw the distressing news reports on television networks that a man thought to be a British soldier had been brutally murdered on the streets of London by two men in what was suspected to be an act of terrorism I immediately had a strong feeling that the killers would claim to be Muslims. This was before it had been reported that they had seemingly done so while invoking Allah (God).

Within hours, almost all major Muslim organizations in Britain had issued strongly worded public statements condemning the heinous murder and those behind it. The Muslim Council of Britain described it as "a truly barbaric act that has no basis in Islam." This is true. However, the kind of Muslims who engage in acts of terrorism in the name of Islam would disagree and would cite, as did the two killers in Woolwich, a number of Qur'anic verses in an attempt to justify their acts and to prove that such acts have some basis in their understanding of Islamic texts.

The use of religious texts to justify violence is not unique to the practice we see today among a significant minority of Muslims. One only has to study the histories of slavery, colonialism, racism, Apartheid in South Africa, and homophobia to see that the Bible and scriptures from other religious traditions were manipulated in the same way violent extremists among Muslims manipulate the Qur'an. The following famous anecdote is often cited by black liberation theologians in Southern Africa to explain their relationship with the Bible:

"When the white man came, we had the land and he had the Bible. He said, 'Let us close our eyes and pray.' When we opened our eyes, we had the Bible and he had the land!"

Any person who has read the Qur'an will have discovered that there are verses in it that appear to be exclusivist and antagonistic in their representation of the religious 'other' while many other verses are clearly inclusivist, positive, and friendly towards non-Muslims. For example, Qur'an 2: 62 declares:

"Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in God and the last day and does good deeds, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there shall be no fear upon them (on the day of judgement), nor shall they grieve."

Some Muslim and non-Muslim apologists involved in interfaith and inter-religious dialogue tend to overlook the category of 'problematic' verses while focusing on the 'friendly' ones. On the other hand, those who use the Qur'an to justify violent extremism cite the category of 'problematic' verses in support of their positions. Michael Adebolajo, one of Drummer Lee Rigby's killers, invoked Qur'an 9:5 perhaps in anticipation of a strong backlash from fellow Muslims among his intended wider British audience:

"Slay the mushrikin (translated as 'idolaters') wherever you find them, and take them (captive), and besiege them, and prepare for them each ambush..." (Qur'an 9:5).

This verse unites extremist groups among Muslims and far-right critics of Islam in their dehistoricised and decontexualised literalist reading of the Qur'an. Such readers deliberately choose not to cite the first part of the verse: "Then, when the sacred months (of pilgrimage to Mecca/ haj) have passed, slay the mushrikin wherever you find them..."

For contextualist readers of the Qur'an, the verses before and after Qur'an 9:5 are significant because they provide the historical context and background to the verse. That context severely limits the verse's meaning and application to the violation of treaties during the wars which were fought between Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh Arab tribes of Mecca in 7th century Arabia. It was therefore not meant to be a universal code of contact between Muslims and others even during times of war. Islamic 'canonical' traditions teach that it is haram (prohibited) even for a Muslim soldier fighting on behalf of a Muslim country to pursue and kill an enemy combatant who is now outside the theatre of battle. Thus, even for those who believe in a narrow definition of Jihad as "military", such an act would still constitute murder which is prohibited and condemned by the Qur'an.

There are also other historical texts that suggest that early Muslims read Qur'an 9:5 within a specific historical situation. According to traditions attributed to the Prophet's Companion Abdullah Ibn Abbas who is widely believed to be one of the most authoritative interpreters of the Qur'an, Qur'an 9:5 refers to the cease-fire and treaty which Muhammad signed with the Arab tribe of Kinana in respect of the sacred months. When the news reached the Muslim army that the Kinana tribe was planning to launch an attack soon after the end of the sacred months, Muhammad's army was instructed through Qur'an 9:5 to defend themselves if attacked by that tribe.

In the midst of the debate on the role of Western foreign policies in sowing the seeds of hatred and anger, the question that should also be addressed is how a young British Muslim on the streets of twenty first century cosmopolitan London should be educated to read and interpret his or her Qur'an whose original audiences were mostly seventh century desert communities who lived in a hostile geographical and cultural landscape marked by endless tribal blood feuds. Indeed one of the traits greatly valued in pre-Islamic society, as documented in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, was that of hamasa (steadfastness in seeking revenge). The Qur'an responds to, polemicises, and reflects that society.