Editor’s note: This is the finale of a three-part series where one Muslim writer tries to figure out just what religiousness is supposed to be. It’s something we all have to figure out at some point, so he is trying to do it here. This conversation on religion continues in our linked podcast, “The Confessional.”
Typically, I begin these articles with a passage of the Qur’an translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem. My hope was that analyzing some Qur’anic passages in this series would help to demystify readers who haven’t really engaged with Islam beyond the vague cultural images ascribed to Muslims.
But if you’ve ever gone down to the comments section of a YouTube video with the words “Muslim” or “Islam” in the title, you’ve no doubt encountered this translation:
“They would dearly like you to reject Faith, as they themselves have done, to be like them. So do not take them as allies until they migrate [to Medina] for God's cause. If they turn [on you], then seize and kill them wherever you encounter them. Take none of them as an ally or supporter.” (4:89)
This verse (and others like it) is a favorite among Islamophobes to justify the Westernized image of Muslims as a tribe of violent barbarians, a sharp contrast to the moderate followers of a “religion of peace” described by virtually every U.S. president since unprosecuted war criminal George W. Bush. Both of these depictions are limited and monolithic in their own right, but Muslim Americans from all walks of life must contend with them all the same.
And I’ll admit, grappling with verses like that was challenging for me. As a kid, I mostly relied on my parents to tell me what was in the Qur’an, and they gave me a pretty solid foundation: pray regularly, give to those you can, take care of the people around you, and don’t do anything that would make God upset with you.
Of course, just like any other kid, I started to question the beliefs I inherited from them. Killing, stealing, hurting other people — these are bad, yes, undeniably. Drinking and eating pork? I abstain from them, but I don’t think it’s fair to say somebody’s less religious if they don’t. (And between you and me, I feel the lesson of the people of Lot was more about how you love rather than who you love.)
Still, I’m a Muslim who believes the Qur’an is the truth from God. Choosing to only follow some parts of the Qur’an while ignoring others inherently weakens my faith. And I couldn't ignore the reality of violent verses like that, or other verses that seemingly went against my own independent sense right and wrong.
Complicating this for me further was that I’m a citizen of a country that quite regularly demonizes my religion. So the major moral crisis for me growing up was a question of who it was, exactly, that I was doubting. My parents? My country? God?
The lesson I have learned over a lifetime of thinking about this isn’t whether or not Islam is against terrorism (that’s just abundantly clear). No, what I learned is that context is key. Here’s the verse that immediately follows the favored verse of internet trolls that I quoted earlier:
“But as for those who reach people with whom you have a treaty, or who come over to you because their hearts shrink from fighting against you or against their own people, God could have given them power over you, and they would have fought you. So if they withdraw and do not fight you, and offer you peace, then God gives you no way against them.” (4:90)
Islam is a religion that both advocates for peace and recognizes that peace is not possible without justice. In the face of a group that wants you eradicated — people like the noble class of Meccan society in the early days of Islam — violence is a terrible reality that follows suit. The Qur’an’s violent verses aren’t so much a call to arms as they are a code of conduct during wartime.
“Divine Intervention” is a religious reflection, but it’s also a sort of political statement. As a species, humans are far from perfect — we can inflict just as much harm on each other as we can foster goodwill. I believe that, at its core, religion and God are meant to teach us how to take care of each other with justice and dignity. Maybe I’m just a bad Muslim shirking his deen, but I think there’s something beautiful in an all-powerful, all-merciful, all-good God making a creation capable of imperfection, and still giving all of us a chance and capacity to do good and be good.
Reach Summer General Sections Editor Shahbaz Ahmed Khan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @JadeMoonSpeaks
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