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Still Standing for Islam - and Against Terrorism By: Mustafa Akyol
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, October 08, 2004

A few weeks ago, Frontpage published an article titled "Jihad Killings of POWs and Non-Combatants," written by Andrew G. Bostom. Mr. Bostom's piece was basically a rebuttal against my two earlier articles appearing on the National Review Online, titled "The Prophet and Paul Johnson" and "Al-Qaeda vs. The Koran". In both of these articles, I had argued that indiscriminate killings by al-Qaeda and its ilk are unacceptable from a true Islamic perspective.


However, this proved to be unacceptable for Mr. Bostom. For him, and for other like-minded authors such as Robert Spencer, who also criticized me at his "Jihad Watch" website, the very faith of Islam is the source of today's radical Islamist terrorism and al-Qaeda is doing exactly what the Koran advocates.  In another article that disapproved my argument, Hugh Fitzgerald summed this up. "Bin Laden is a good Muslim," Mr. Fitzgerald wrote, "an orthodox Muslim."


I can well understand the concerns of these authors about radical Islamist terrorism. But they are mistaken in the way they connect it to the Muslim faith. It seems to me that they are applying a selective use of knowledge, a method in which one only uses the data that seems to support a preconceived thesis while ignoring the data that does not. They overlook the many examples of really humane and tolerant teachings and episodes in Islam and its history. Moreover, they attribute Islamic religious motives for every bloodshed in the history of the Islamic civilization--ignoring the fact Muslims can do evil, not because Islam directs it, but because they themselves individually choose to do so.


In this response to Mr. Bostom, I will examine all the issues raised in his article and will disclose the facts he neglected or misinterpreted. And I will be doing this not in a spirit of rebutting Mr. Bostom, or other critiques of Islam, but rather to help them, and others, see the Islamic faith more fairly.


Intellectual Jihad?


At the outset, I should clarify the meaning of the term jihad. It does not necessarily mean a military struggle. Yes, it was understood and used often in that denotation throughout Islamic history; however, it might also mean quite peaceful efforts for the sake of God. I personally believe that an intellectual jihad is necessary for today's Muslims against materialism, both as a philosophy and as a worldview. That is why I call Muslims to be active in the scientific and intellectual challenge to materialism, hand in hand with other fellow theists, Christians and Jews. Many other Muslims emphasize the importance of such a "war" of ideas. On a popular Muslim website, under the title  "The Final Jihad", the author defines the enemy as "western secular materialism" and adds that, "the weapon in this jihad must be knowledge."


Mr. Bostom asks for a Koranic source for this "non-military campaign against atheism." Well, that is what much of the Koran is all about. In verse 2:28, for example, atheism is intellectually challenged: "How do you deny God when you were dead and He gave you life?" And there are hundreds of verses starting with the command "Say," and among the facts to be said comes first the existence, power, mercy and benevolence of God. Refuting atheism and its related philosophies is just a modern version of telling about God. In fact, it has been a primal intellectual Islamic effort since the days of Ghazali — the Muslim equivalent of St. Thomas Aquinas.


Mr. Bostom also asks what will happen to atheists if they are not convinced. Of course, nothing. Let them deny the obvious. "There is no compulsion in religion" (2:256) and Muslims are ordered to say "The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve." (18:29)


Here is another Koranic verse telling what to do with non-Muslims:

If they argue with you, say, ‘I have submitted myself completely to God, and so have all who follow me.’ Say to those given the Book and those who have no Book, ‘Have you become Muslim?’ If they become Muslim, they have been guided. If they turn away, you are only responsible for transmission. God sees His servants. (3:20)

Yet probably this will not convince Mr. Bostom, because he will think that such Koranic verses of tolerance should have been abrogated by "war verses" that came later.


He is right in pointing out that such a dangerous doctrine of abrogation exists, but wrong in accepting it as the legitimate way of understanding the Koran.


The Myth of Abrogation


The doctrine of abrogation is actually a late invention, introduced by some classical jurists during the fourth century (late 10th century) of Islam. These scholars came up with hundreds of cases of abrogated verses to the extent that they formulated a whole science of the subject filling lengthy books and references.


Yet they were in error and many Muslim thinkers are pointing this out since the 19th century. Dr. Khaleel Mohammed, a professor of Religion at San Diego State University, has a very good article that summarizes the refutations against the doctrine of abrogation.  "The allegation that 120 verses on the invitation to Islam were abrogated by the verse of the sword (9:5)" says Dr. Mohammed, "is in fact one of crassest stupidity."


The error of the classical exegetes who developed the doctrine of abrogation, explains Dr. Mohammed, was that they "followed an atomistic typology of interpretation, wherein every verse of Islam's main document was treated as an independent unit." Thus, a later verse on waging war against unbelievers was taken to invalidate all previous verses and define the Islamic political doctrine all by itself. However, a more consistent method is to stop treating verses as independent units and to try to understand their meaning by referring to their contexts and the overall meaning of the Koran.


Actually the Koran itself declares that it includes no contradictions (4:82), thus its verses should be seen not as conflicting and calling for abrogative passages, but rather as complimentary parts of a single mosaic.


If we try to build that mosaic, we will see that the war verses describe only an abnormal state of affairs — in which the Muslim community faced an enemy that sought its annihilation — and verses that promote peace and tolerance describe the Islamic ideal.


This becomes clear when we remember the context in which the Koran was revealed. During the initial thirteen years of Islam, Muslims were a totally pacifist community in the pagan-dominated city of Mecca. They simply tried to practice and evangelize their faith and told to the pagans, "You have your religion and I have my religion" (109:6) as the Koran ordered them to do. If the pagans of Mecca had accepted this formula, Muslims would not have needed to flee from Mecca, and then establish a state in Medina and afterwards get into a war of survival with Meccans and their allies.


Thus the "Meccan verses" of tolerance tell us about the ideal Islamic mission. "Medinan verses" of war tell us about a situation that we rarely face in the modern world — a religious community faced with a threat of annihilation, "merely for saying, ‘Our Lord is God'." (22:40)


We should build the modern Islamic doctrine of politics based on Meccan verses, since the original Islamic model of mutual tolerance — which did not work in Mecca because of the bigotry of the Pagan establishment — does work in the modern world in which religious freedom is firmly established.[i]


That said, I now want to focus on the real issue that Mr. Bostom brought forth against me: The issue of the true Islamic rules of war. I have argued that these rules do not allow indiscriminate killing. This means attacks against non-combatants and POWs — such as we have seen in 9/11, suicide bombings in Israel, and recent kidnappings in Iraq — are illegitimate from a true Islamic point of view.


To argue otherwise, Mr. Bostom quotes many incidents from Islamic history in which Christians, Hindus or other non-Muslim populations — including POWs, and more horribly, women and children — were massacred by "Muslims." The long quotes he cites from the eyewitnesses of such tragedies might persuade many readers that Islam is indeed a violent faith. When we take a closer look however, it turns out that the picture that Mr. Bostom presents is quite different from the objective truth.


Let's see how. First, we have to start with the Prophet himself.


The Sword — and the Mercy — of the Prophet


After the Koran, and before everything else, the practice of Prophet Muhammad is binding for all Muslims. The way he treated non-combatants and POWS is thus crucial. In my previous articles on the issue, I have mentioned that he ordered his fellow Muslims to care for non-combatants in war and treat POWs well. In fact, the Koran explicitly orders the good treatment of POWs. (76:8)


To argue that the Prophetic treatment of POWs was in fact violent, Mr. Bostom quotes from W.H.T. Gairdner, who tells us about "the greatest vindictiveness and bloodthirstiness" at the end of the Battle of Badr, which took place between Muslims and pagan Meccans in the year 624. Although Gairdner vaguely tells us there was some killing and "The Prophet checked these excesses," he doesn't explain that killings POWs after a battle was the standard Arab custom of the day and Prophet Muhammad intervened to preclude that norm. Karen Armstrong, a British historian and former nun, writes about the aftermath of the fighting at Badr:

The Muslims were jubilant. They began to round up prisoners and, in the usual Arab fashion, started to kill them, but Muhammad put a stop to this. A revelation came down saying that the prisoners of war were to be ransomed. He also stopped the Muslims squabbling over the booty, and the 150 camels, ten horses and pile of armour and equipment were divided up equally. Then the victorious army began the trek home with seventy prisoners of war . . . On the way home, Muhammad received a revelation for the prisoners themselves:

O Prophet, say to the prisoners in your hands: 'If God knows of any good in your hearts, He will give you better than what has been taken from you, and He will forgive you. Surely, God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.' (8:70)[ii]

Thus "the greatest vindictiveness and bloodthirstiness" that Mr. Bostom's source attributes to Islam was in fact a pre-Islamic practice stopped by the Prophet of Islam.


It is known that the Prophet allowed the execution of two specific POWs at Badr. These were Nadr bin el-Haris and Ukba bin Ebi Muayt, who were notorious for repeatedly persecuting Muslims and insulting Islam in Mecca. In today's terms, this would be tantamount to an execution of war criminals.


There is a tradition which claims that taking POWs at the end of Badr was a mistake and Prophet was warned about this by later verse (8:67). But this is not widely accepted and even radical interpreters of the Koran such as Mawdudi find this unconvincing. This issue has been considered recently in Time magazine and it was reported,

According to some hadiths, Muhammad was left wondering what to do with the resulting prisoners. This, the texts claimed, was the context for God's Koranic statement "As to prisoners of war, we have not sent you as an oppressor of the land." One 10th century gloss further asserted that the Prophet took God's word to mean he should kill the captives so as not to continue to be a prisoner holder, and that is probably the proof text al-Zarqawi had in mind [while referring to Badr as a justification for beheadings].

But according to Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor of Western and Islamic law at UCLA, that reading was discounted long ago. He says the vast majority of classical jurists subscribed to a more intuitively obvious version, whereby God's words prompted Muhammad to free his captives. They saw the "off with their heads" reading as insupportable. "Al-Zarqawi," says El Fadl, "searches for the trash that everyone threw out centuries ago and declares the trash to be Islam."[iii]

Mr. Bostom also raises the issue of the alleged massacre of the men of Bani Qurayza, the Jewish tribe who conspired against Muslims when Medina was besieged by the pagan army of Mecca in the year 627. Yes, I don't accept the traditional view that the men of Bani Qurayza were beheaded and there are good reasons for that as stated in the article by W. N. Arafat.


Mr. Bostom faults me for failing to mention the supposed reference in the Koran to the alleged Bani Qurayza massacre. That supposed reference is verse 33:26:

He [God] brought down from their fortresses those of the People of the Book who supported them [pagans] and cast terror into their hearts. You killed some of them and some you took prisoner.

Well, I think it is pretty self-evident that the verse describes a heat of battle, not a slaughter. In fact, the verse tells us that some men of Qurayza were taken as prisoners — thus spared. As W. N. Arafat points out that,

In the Qur'an the reference can only be to those who were actually in the fighting. This is a statementabout the battle. It concerns those who fought. Some of these were killed. Others were taken prisoner. One would think that if 600 or 900 people were killed in this manner the significance of the event would have been greater. There would have been a clearer reference in the Qur'an, a conclusion to be drawn, and a lesson to be learnt. But when only the guilty leaders were executed, it would be normal to expect only a brief reference.[iv]

Yet Mr. Bostom insists on believing in the slaughter of Bani Qurayza. He also refers to the Sahih Bukhari (a hadith collection) supporting that story, and as a pre-caution to my possible rejection to that, he says, "once you start questioning the sacralized Muslim sources and texts- Koran, hadith, sira (sacred biographies of Muhammad)- this cannot be done selectively."


My dear friend Mark Hartwig also pointed out the Sahih Bukhari source in a letter to NRO that discussed my previous articles.


Well, I don't question the Koran, which I believe to be the infallible Word of God, yet I, like many other contemporary Muslims, feel free to question traditional Islamic sources such as the hadith and sira. These were written at least one and a half centuries after the Prophet and we already know that there were many fake sayings attributed to and fables made up about Prophet Muhammad. The collection we have today was compiled by men most of whom had the best intentions, but good intentions are not enough to create an infallible source.[v] 


The overall evidence relating to Prophet Muhammad shows us that he never sanctioned indiscriminate killing. He is on the record for saying, "Do not kill the very old, the infant, the child, or the woman."[vi] Abu-Bakr, his closest companion and successor as the first caliph of Islam, is also on the record for saying to Muslim soldiers, "Do not kill a young child, an old man, or a woman. Do not uproot or burn palms or cut down fruitful trees... You will meet people who have set themselves apart in hermitages; leave them to accomplish the purpose for which they have done this."[vii]

And although "the humanizing influence of Islamic teaching was in some ways diminished by [later] developments," as Bernard Lewis, undoubtedly one of the greatest Western experts on Islam, explains[viii], it never sought to justify the indiscriminate killings that Mr. Bostom insistently attaches to Islam.


To continue reading this article, click here. 

[i] If we apply that principle in today's world, we can hardly find justifications for a military Jihad. In the 20th century, totalitarian regimes like the Nazi Germany, Soviet Union, and other communist regimes like that of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or Enver Hoxa in Albania could well be targets of military jihad — but, thank God, they are all gone. In the 90's, the Bosnian Serbs militias deserved to be a target for military Jihad because of their cruel "ethnic cleansing" against the Muslim population of Bosnia and later, Kosovo. 

[ii] Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, p. 176

[iii] David Van Biema, "Does the Koran Condone Killing?", Time, September 5, 2004

[iv] W. N. Arafat, "New Light on the Story of Banu Qurayza and the Jews of Medina", Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, (1976), pp. 100-107.

[v] Professor Hayri Kirbasoglu, a theologian in Ankara University and an expert on hadiths, argues that a new method is necessary to evaluate the hadith collection. Compatibility with the Qur'an — a criteria much neglected before — he says, should be the basis of this method. This could lead to the abandonment of some classical stories about Prophet Muhammad, such as the one about the Bani Qurayza incident. In fact, even the very conservative Al-Azhar is reconsidering the hadiths. Al-Ahram of Egypt, in its 9, August, 2002 issue, reported that a specialised committee of Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy had been set up to work on purifying the sources of hadith and the tafsir (official commentaries explaining the meaning of the Koran), from “the strange, the false and from forgery”.

[vi] From Al-Muttaqi, Kanz, ii, pp. 252-286, quoted in Bernard Lewis (editor and traslator), Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Volume I: Politics and War, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, p. 212

[vii] From Al-Tabari, i, p. 1850, quoted in Bernard Lewis (editor and traslator), Islam: From the Prophet Muhammad to the Capture of Constantinople, Volume I: Politics and War, Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, p. 213

[viii] Bernard Lewis, The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1995, p. 208

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