Peacefulness: Can our own past be a guide for the Qur’an’s followers?

In the wake of the jihadi attacks of 9/11, on September 20, 2001 President Bush famously told the world from the austere venue of a Joint Session of Congress at the Capitol that the 9/11 al Qaeda terrorists had “hijacked” Islam, the teachings of which are “good and peaceful”. And in the process, the president said, “those who commit evil in the name of Allah blaspheme the name of Allah.”

Many wondered at the time whether the president was somewhat off message, maybe off kilter. He made those remarks as the smell of death still wafted – as Islam itself seemed to be the enemy of the United States. Were his remarks designed to stem anticipated violence against Muslims? Was it to pacify, maybe win over, listening Muslims, and even those Muslim clerics who did not yet publicly rebuke such thinking oppositional to the values of Western civilization?

The president’s words forced many skeptics to study (or restudy) the actual language of the Qur’an, that seemed facially to so betray the president’s remarks. And many, today, still look at President Bush’s words as having been imprudent, particularly when even those who don’t directly follow bin Laden and his ilk invoke the name of Allah (“Allah Akbar”) in advocating the sometimes violent “teaching” of the Qur’an. If one concentrated on the words of the Qur’an in black and white, it seems to condone, and even command, violence. A peaceful religion?

Look at Sura 9:5 (“The Sword Verse”). One would easily conclude that believers in Islam are unambiguously instructed to, at least sometimes, engage in violence: “When the Sacred Months have passed, kill the polytheists [the idolaters] wherever you find them. And capture them and besiege them, and lie in wait for them in every place of ambush . . . ”  Could it be clearer? Don’t those words present an inexorable path – violence toward infidels is required for a dutiful and committed life?

In his brand new and latest book on the three great monotheistic religions (“God in The Qur’an”, Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), Jack Miles says he “would not care to defend the claim that Islam is a ‘religion of peace’”. He does something totally different.  Rather, recognizing that “true religious pacifism existed at times and still exists in a few places,” he makes clear that “not one of these three religions” – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – “deserves” to be called a religion of peace.

Indeed, the holy writings of all three religions call for violence against those who are not devout.  In Revelation 19:11-20, the last book of the New Testament (a book that Thomas Jefferson referred to as “The Ravings of a Maniac”), we are told:

And now I saw heaven open, and a white horse appear; its rider was called Trustworthy and True; in uprightness he judges and makes war.  His eyes were flames of fire, and his head was crowned with many coronets; the name written on him was known only to himself, his cloak was soaked in blood.  He is known by the name, The Word of God. . .

I saw an angel standing in the sun, and he shouted aloud to all the birds that were flying high overhead in the sky, “Come here.  Gather together at God’s great feast.  You will eat the flesh of kings, and the flesh of great generals and heroes, the flesh of horses and their riders and of all kinds of people, citizens and slaves, small and great alike.

Thus, at the end of the New Testament, Jesus is portrayed as a warrior leading his army, his cloak drenched in blood, slaughtering his enemies (pagans) with a miraculous sword, summoning the vultures to feed on the flesh of their corpses.

The Old Testament, also, is hardly a canon of peacefulness.  There’s little question that the Hebrews appear justifiable in beating into submission Amalek, their enemy that pointlessly attacked the Hebrews following their exodus from Egypt [Ex. 17:8-15].  Given the gratuitousness of the attack, one might say that incident was justified. But where might lie the justification for what the Book of Samuel [15:2-3] tells us to do so many years later – actions which Miles, uncomfortably but perhaps accurately, refers to as “genocide”.  Reiterating what was specifically dictated by God in Exodus, and undeniably in perpetuity, we are told:

I intend to punish what Amalek did to Israel – laying a trap for him on the way as he was coming up from Egypt.  Now, go and crush Amalek, put him under the curse of destruction with all that he possesses.  Do not spare him, but kill man and woman, babe and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and donkey (emphasis added).

And while Miles offers us the episode of Amalek, the stories of Deuteronomy present a far worse and imposing pattern of God telling the House of Israel to be the aggressor.  God specifically instructed the Israelites several times, while wandering through the desert, to kill all idol-worshipping nations – men, women and children – lest they influence the Israelites to betray Him. Yes, not just men who might have been soldiers, but women and children as well: “At that time we took all his towns and completely destroyed them—men, women and children” [Deut. 2:34]; “We completely destroyed them, as we had done with Sihon king of Heshbon, destroying every city—men, women and children. We left no survivors” [Deut. 3:6].  Or consider the song sung by the Hebrews while crossing the Red Sea, “The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is His name.” God, Himself, is a warrior?

Now, to be sure, there is no view, today, that either Judaism or Christianity defend violence on the part of their people in the name of religion, even though these ancient holy writings clearly encourage, perhaps demand, it.  Yet those who subvert Islam explicitly use its holy writings to justify a Holy War in current times.  Judaism and Christianity have “evolved” – perhaps, the proper word — to a place where the devoted recognize that the existence of these violent terms in ancient texts doesn’t warrant their inculcation into modern life!

If that were also to apply to Islam, that is, if the violent writings of the Qur’an are not to have a place in contemporary society, how can the followers of Islam learn the lesson Jews and Christians have come to understand? Judaism, for example, has a concept, created for Jews by the rabbis in Talmudic times, probably in the Fourth or Fifth Century, largely for this purpose: “the Law of the Land Is The Law.” Perhaps it was a practical, political statement of going along in order to get along.

That is, if secular law prohibits something – for example, mass violence against enemies, polygamy or vigilante killing – even if ancient Jewish law accepts it, secular law supersedes, making it religiously verboten as well. So if the Hebrew Bible allows, even encourages in perpetuity, the “genocidal” killing of Amalek wherever one might find his descendants, since secular law would disallow it, Jewish law would not permit it either.  But as demonstrated during the Inquisition when Christianity sought to stamp out heresy, this only works if all religions accept the notion, as has Judaism for the last sixteen hundred years, that “the Law of The Land is the Law”, i.e., that one who lives in a non-theocratic society must comply with its dictates.

Jews are the older cousins of Muslims (both, children of Abraham) and have also been burdened by a religious strain of violence in our past.  Without intending to be preachy, having moved away from it over time we may be a helpful model to Islam’s religious leaders so that the same non-violent thinking is, to the extent it is not already, taught in their mosques by their Imams.  While that is not the specific message of Miles’s book, comparing the “holy war” violence contained in the respective “manuals”, as it were, of the three religions, will give Imams a basis to encourage meaningful modernity to their followers. And maybe, most important, to better help make that happen, Jewish leaders today need to candidly acknowledge to ourselves and to others that in the distant past we, too, were “offenders” and lived by a creed that occasionally condoned, even commanded, violence in the name of God. And we, as a people, needed to, and ultimately did, evolve from that way of life, with the help of our clergy.

Making President’s Bush’s perhaps aspirational view of Islam a true and current reality for all followers would be a great thing!

About the Author
Joel Cohen is a white-collar criminal defense lawyer at Stroock in New York and previously a prosecutor. He speaks and writes on law, ethics and policy (NY Law Journal, The Hill and Law & Crime). He teaches a course on "How Judges Decide" at Fordham Law School. He has published “Truth Be Veiled,” “Blindfolds Off: Judges on How They Decide” and works of Biblical fiction including “Moses: A Memoir.” The opinions expressed in this article are Mr. Cohen's and not necessarily those of the Stroock firm or its lawyers. Dale J. Degenshein, a Stroock colleague, assists in preparing the articles on this blog.
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