A Misconceived Book Seeks to Combat Bigotry by Romanticizing Islam

Nov. 21 2017

In What the Qur’an Meant: And Why It Matters, Garry Wills sets out to educate his readers about the Islamic holy book with the goal of countering anti-Muslim prejudice. Shadi Hamid, while sympathizing with the aim, argues that the book both betrays its author’s ignorance and subverts his purpose:

[Wills] writes of al-Qaeda and the soldiers of Islamic State: “[these] minority fanatics seem to be unaware of their own traditions.” Here, he shows that his own knowledge of Islamic State’s theology is sometimes limited. The problem isn’t that Islamic State’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is unaware of more broad-minded interpretations of the Quran; it’s that he thinks they’re wrong. . . .

Wills [also] sometimes seeks to present Islam as something it never was. For instance, he claims that a “mountain of evidence” demonstrates that “Islam favors peace over violence.” But Islam is not a pacifist religion. For centuries, Muslim jurists developed a body of law on the waging of war, including how to treat prisoners and civilians caught in conflict and the definition of what properly qualifies as jihad. [But] why should Islam be pacifist in the first place? Since religions are more than just private belief systems, they inevitably must account not only for the ideal of peace but for the reality of war. The Quran was revealed to a prophet and a people engaged in battle, so Islam would necessarily have to address questions of violence and the conquest of territory by force. . . .

Wills makes other claims that are simply misleading, as when he asserts that “there are no ‘portions’ of the Quran that discuss sharia.” In support of his argument, he says that only about 500 of the Quran’s 6,235 verses deal with legal matters. The Quran is not a legal manual, but 8 percent of a book isn’t exactly nothing, either. The holy book is one of the major sources for interpreting sharia. Wills’ presumption appears to be that a religion having something to say about law is a bad thing and must therefore be played down.

I . . . worry about the unintended effects of trying to soften Islam’s image or dilute its content. Trying to make Islam digestible to non-Muslims by making it peaceful and legally ambivalent may only inspire more confusion. What happens when, after reading about this palatable, peaceful, and unthreatening religion, Americans are confronted by a version of it that is unapologetically assertive and uncompromising?

Read more at Washington Post

More about: Islam, Islamic State, Quran, Religion & Holidays, Sharia

On Thanksgiving, Remember the Exodus from Egypt

Nov. 27 2020

When asked to design a Great Seal of the United States, Benjamin Franklin proposed a depiction of Moses at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, while Thomas Jefferson suggested the children of Israel in the wilderness after departing Egypt. These proposals, writes Ed Simon, tapped into a venerable American tradition:

The Puritans from whom Franklin descended had been comparing their own arrival in the New World with the story of Exodus for more than a century. They were inheritors of a profoundly Judaic vision, melding the stories of the Hebrew scripture with their own narratives and experiences. . . .

For the Puritans, Exodus was arguably a model for understanding their own lives and history in a manner more all-encompassing and totalizing than for any other historical religious group, with the obvious exception of the Jews. . . . American Puritans and pilgrims like John Mather, John Winthrop, John Cotton, . . . and many others placed the Exodus at the center of their vision, seeing their own fleeing from an oppressive England and a Europe wracked by the Thirty Years’ War to an American “Errand Into the Wilderness” as a modern version of the Israelites’ escape into Canaan. . . . [Thus the] Exodus . . . has become indispensable in comprehending the wider American experience. Through the Puritans, the story of Exodus became a motivating script for all manner of American stories. . . .

We read its significance and prophetic power in accounts of slaves who escaped the cruelty of antebellum plantation servitude, and who crossed the Ohio River as if it were the Sea of Reeds. . . . We see it in photographs of the oppressed escaping pogroms and persecution in the Old World, and in the stories of later generations of refugees. Exodus is an indispensably Jewish story, but what more appropriate day than Thanksgiving, this most American and Puritan (and “Jewish”?) of holidays, to consider the role that that particular biblical narrative has had in defining America’s civil religion?

Read more at Tablet

More about: American founding, American Religion, Exodus, History & Ideas, Thanksgiving, Thomas Jefferson