Friday, August 18, 2006

Follow up on Islamic Comment

I realized after posting a comment to this post on Matthew's blog, I wanted to say a little more about the question of whether Islam is inherently a violent religion or not. Whether warfare/jihad is part of its DNA, if you will.

The Qu'ran was originally an oral tradition. It was memerized and passed down by a ritual-like chanting. The Revelations given to The Prophet occurred over a series of about two decades. They were very context-specific in many regards. The Quran was not written down until later. There are arguments as to just how much later, which need not concern us here; sufficed to say, it was later.

And once it became written down and a final, letter text, the whole Arabian setting/historical context was lost (similar in this regard to the editing, final version of the Bible we know). However, the Quran is not narrative, like the Bible. Nor Letters like those of St. Paul.

They almost have to be grasped through listening to them chanted (or chanting onself) in Arabic. There is something "magical" to the Arabic tongue that accords with its power to captivate. That's why Islam does not like translating the Quran. Just sit down and try reading an English translation--it's very difficult to understand what is happening.

It is an oral chanted piece, understood more in light of Arabian ecstatic (shamanic?) poetry.

To complicate matters, the Quran is not written in chronological order. The Suras (Chapters) are not 1: 1st Revelation to Muhammad, 2: 2nd, 3:3rd, etc. etc. They are ordered by length, from longest to shortest. So it is very difficult to gain a sense of the historical context of each chapter.

So immediately the question is how do you interpret this thing? Because there are clearly contradictory passages in the book, just like in the Bible.

One hermeneutical principle was the concept of abrogation: the later passages abrogated the former. This principle is vitally important to the understanding of passages relating to violence/warfare/jihad.

Prof. Reuven Firestone (and here on Jerusalem) marks out three phases in the life of the early Muslim community regarding warfare.

Recall the early Muslims were threatened by the established Meccan Qurayashi community. The Qurayashi controlled a lucrative pilgrimage trade in Arabia Peninsula with a shrine at Mecca. This shrine involved the worship of any number of gods/goddesses, many common throughout the larger Near East. Call them pagan, polytheist if you like. The Q tribe controlled the pilgrimage route and the sacred shrine and exorted a tax on all pilgrims. Anyone was allowed to worship--except as we'll see Muslims--as long as they paid their money. This initial pilgrimage is the ancestor of the Muslim haj.

Mecca was likely a religious shrine because of a spring and regarded as a natural holy site--animistic faith. There was also a culture of poetic mastery. It involved men who performed oral poetry that relished in individual acts of heroism, courage, and puttting down others (primitive hero journey). And the social system was based on tribal clans with chiefs (sheiks). These tribal affiliations dominated all forms of interaction. One's identity was totally subsumed into the tribe.
Resources were scarce. Some agricultural sedentary lifestyle emerged but during times of (frequent) drought, people would return to a combination hunter-gatherer existence plus small farming. And even during periods of sedentary agriculture, there was always the fear of attack/expropriation from nomadic tribes.

There was no imperial system superseding the clans. Clan justice was swift and brutal. A tribal consciousness still very much in play currently.

All of these trends show just how localized/limited were the identities-affiliations: economics, local gods, heroic poetry. The Quran labels this life-complex (red) jahiliyah ("the ignorant"--i.e. ignorant of God's Revelation).

There were initially a group of Monotheists (Hanifa) who protested the Meccan shrine and refused to participate. One of these figures plays a John the Baptist-like role (Muhammad: Jesus) to the young prophet to be Muhammad, teaching him not to eat meat sacrificed to the pagan gods. But the Hanifa wee more solitary figures and were not seen as a threat by the Meccan establishment, it appears.

Muhammad not only condemned the practice but gained followers and had a movement; hence he was seen as a threat.

Muhammad was from a low-level clan of the Qurayash tribe himself. After making a name for himself as a caravan trader and marrying up in the social ladder (to an older woman), he began to feel existentially depressed around the age of 40 [a very mythic number]. He went to the caves to be alone and pray. It was there that he became a mouthpiece for God.

The Revelations of the Quran sought to create a trans-tribal identity and to bring justice and care for one another beyond the brutal tribal law. He sought it seems almost a tribe of all believers in God--including at first it appears Chrsitians and Jews.

We deeply misunderstand Muhammad's life and teaching if we do not grasp his role as both prophet and tribal sheik. A man who attempted to create aa tribe of mutual care for all those who desired to join based out of their love of God and acceptance of the Revelation, not out of birth/familial identity.

Originally Muhammad and the early followers were rebuffed, scorned, even persecuted verbally but phyiscally he was unharmed. The first phase of Quran revelations talk of simply resisting evil with good, turning the other-cheek like phrases and trying to persuade others.

But the situation grew worse and the followers were forced to flee to Medina. [Called the hajj]. Muhammad was originally invited to Medina to mediate in a blood-feud, tribal war between two Arab tribes, Aws and Khazraj. Again pay close attention to the tribal form of governance. By all accounts he was a master negotiator.

Nevertheless this alternate power was perceived as a threat to Mecca and the Qurayashi declared war. The second phase, represented by the early Medinian community, talk of defending with arms but put strict limits on that warfare. Defensive only, no killing of non-combatants, no fighting during the holy pilgrimmage month, no attacking wells/crops, and must sue for peace as soon as the opponent offers.

The war continued however and rather than sue for peace the Qurayashi sought to totally exterminate the Muslims. For they talked of a transcendent God, one that superseded the local gods, and a God not to be depicted through statues.

During the second phase Muhammad, against the wishes of many of his followers, declared a truce with the Qurayash. He even allowed Muslims who wished to apostasize and return to Mecca (join the Qurayash) to be able to do so freely and they would not be harmed.

The treaty was broken and Muhammad offered to restiution to the Qurayash for their dead. They refused and the war entered its final stage.

The last set of passages relate to this phase and they are the passages (taken out of context) used to justify terrorism, or even jiadhi resistance movements.

Muhammad and the Jews

There were Jewish tribes, living a similar type of existence to the other local Arabian tribes during Muhammad's life.

Muhammad was deeply impressed by the discipline and piety of the Jews. Originally Muslims face to Jerusalem (not Mecca) when they prayed; Islam also has a lunar calendar, as does Judaism, all a product of their admiration for the Jewish faith.

Muhammad as tribal leader and religious prophet also had tribal-political alliances with some of these Jewish tribes.

After the a battle against the Qurayash, (Badr) it was discovered that a Jewish tribe in alliance with the Muslims had consorted with the enemy. Obviously the Jewish tribe (the Banu Qaniquba) thought the Muslims were going to lose and the Qaniquba sought to protect themselves with their new overlords to be, the Qurayash.

In violation of traditional tribal custom, Muhammad only exiled the group. The punishment accoreded at the time was total annihilation.

After the Battle of the Trench another Jewish tribe, the Koreish also broke treaty with the Muslims and supported the Quraysh. After the battle, Muhammad took his forces down and appointed another in his place as mediator. The mediator decided, as per then custom to execute all the men who did not convert. Others it seems argued to spare them---this was their second such offense, after the first Muhammad forgave them--but it seems that Muhammad this time did not relent.

And they were executed. Bloody affair and there's no need to try and excuse it. But to frame it, it is helpful to recall that it wasn't a "kill Jews" thing. Muhammad still had friendly relations with other Jewish tribes and none of those tribes protested at his destruction of the Koreshi. It was a tribal-political decision, not a religious one.

Eventually Mecca was defeated and Muhammad did not put the ban on his former enemies. He entered the city in peace. He destroyed the images in the Kaba (shrine), all except a statue of Jesus and Mary.

This victory of course brought prestige and in such a tme and place, leadership was largely of ability to suceed in battle and feed one's own. Tribes converted some out of what we might today call "poitical" reasons, others due to the aura of victory bringing a sense of this being a "powerful God."

And once that momentum started it became almost avalanche-like.

The notion of death in battle was profuodly strong no doubt in Islam. The mythic desire to re-convert all peoples to Islam, and its vision of being the last and greatest (the seal) of all world religions, its Prophet the last and greatest certainly gave it a sense of superiority and dogmatic truth. But as I will explore in the next post, not more nor less frankly than either Judaism or Christiantiy.

None of this history as foundational principles points to the idea that Islam is inherently a religion that only brings conversion by the sword. It has wounds, blindspots, and negative accretions in its history, no doubt. It must overcome its mythic-only form of instantiation currently as it increasingly becomes reactionary relative to continued evolutionary pressures. But Islam, en toto, is not the problem, nor frankly in most of its current forms, "the answer".


At 5:49 PM, Blogger timbomb said...

Hey Chris,

More excellent stuff! I wasn't aware of most of what you've written in this post. Do you have any references at-hand for people looking to read further (or to throw at people who don't believe me when I repeat what you said :))

At 11:48 PM, Blogger CJ Smith said...

I think the best intro. text is:
no god but God

by Reza Aslan

At 8:40 PM, Blogger Jon said...

I greatly enjoyed reading your comment, and your post here. Months ago, I told a friend that it seemed to me that Islam, being several centuries younger than Christianity, is going through a parallel development, but several centuries behind.

Unfortuately, those were nasty times.


Post a Comment

<< Home