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The Civil War Within Islam? By: Robert Spencer
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, May 13, 2005

Jihad against the West? Relax — it’s all just a misunderstanding. The New York Times has found out that what is really going on is a civil war within Islam that doesn’t actually have much to do with the West at all. This momentous discovery comes courtesy Reza Aslan, an Iranian by birth who is currently a graduate student at the University of California at Santa Barbara. To the delight of the Times and the enlightened lemmings who follow in its wake, he has just published a new book, No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam, that explains it all for us.

It is, says the Times, “a literate, accessible introduction to Islam” — and nothing less than a comprehensive program for Islamic reform: “Mr. Aslan looks to the first Muslim community in Medina, established by Muhammad 1,400 years ago, as a model for reform today. His Medina, though, is a communal, egalitarian society dedicated to pluralism and tolerance.”

How did this communal, egalitarian society lose its dedication to pluralism and tolerance? Well, you see, it was all the fault of a “clerical establishment” that, despite the fact that it fundamentally misunderstood Islam, “gained control over the interpretation of the Koran and the hadith: the anecdotes describing the words and deeds of Muhammad, passed on by his followers and their descendants.”


Many hadith were forged: “Less than two centuries after Muhammad’s death in 632, there were some 700,000 hadith circulating throughout the Muslim world, ‘the great majority of which were unquestionably fabricated by individuals who sought to legitimize their own particular beliefs and practices by connecting them with the Prophet.’ The stoning of adulterous women, to take a notorious example, originated not in the Koran, but in the virulent misogyny of Umar, one of Muhammad’s first converts and later the ruler of the caliphate, who simply claimed that this form of punishment had accidentally been left out of the Koran.”


But this is not generally considered to be a forged hadith. It appears in Sahih Bukhari, the hadith collection Muslims consider most reliable — and it depicts Muhammad clearly ordering stoning for adultery:

Narrated ‘Abdullah bin Umar: The Jews brought to the Prophet a man and a woman from among them who had committed illegal sexual intercourse. The Prophet said to them, “How do you usually punish the one amongst you who has committed illegal sexual intercourse?” They replied, “We blacken their faces with coal and beat them,” He said, “Don’t you find the order of Ar-Rajm (i.e. stoning to death) in the Torah?” They replied, “We do not find anything in it.” ‘Abdullah bin Salam (after hearing this conversation) said to them. “You have told a lie! Bring here the Torah and recite it if you are truthful.” (So the Jews brought the Torah). And the religious teacher who was teaching it to them, put his hand over the Verse of Ar-Rajm and started reading what was written above and below the place hidden with his hand, but he did not read the Verse of Ar-Rajm. ‘Abdullah bin Salam removed his (i.e. the teacher’s) hand from the Verse of Ar-Rajm and said, “What is this?” So when the Jews saw that Verse, they said, “This is the Verse of Ar-Rajm.” So the Prophet ordered the two adulterers to be stoned to death, and they were stoned to death near the place where biers used to be placed near the Mosque. I saw her companion (i.e. the adulterer) bowing over her so as to protect her from the stones. (Bukhari, volume 6, book 60, number 79)

Another hadith collection that Muslim scholars and jurists generally deem reliable, Sahih Muslim, does indeed say that the punishment of stoning for adultery was left out of the Qur’an, but issues a warning to anyone who would try to make something of that fact:

‘Abdullah b. ‘Abbas reported that ‘Umar b. Khattab sat on the pulpit of Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) and said: Verily Allah sent Muhammad (may peace be upon him) with truth and He sent down the Book upon him, and the verse of stoning was included in what was sent down to him. We recited it, retained it in our memory and understood it. Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) awarded the punishment of stoning to death (to the married adulterer and adulteress) and, after him, we also awarded the punishment of stoning, I am afraid that with the lapse of time, the people (may forget it) and may say: We do not find the punishment of stoning in the Book of Allah, and thus go astray by abandoning this duty prescribed by Allah. Stoning is a duty laid down in Allah’s Book for married men and women who commit adultery when proof is established, or it there is pregnancy, or a confession. (Muslim, book 17, bumber 4194)

Perhaps because he knows that the traditional interpretations are better-attested than he generally lets on, Aslan “acknowledges that the outcome” of his reform project “is in doubt.” Nonetheless, he insists that “the vast majority of the more than one billion Muslims in the world readily accept the fundamental principles of democracy” and are committed to “genuine Islamic values like pluralism, freedom, justice, human rights, and above all, democracy.”


To its credit, the Times notes that “Mr. Aslan, in his polemical conclusion, tends to assert rather than present evidence. His impassioned plea for an Islamic form of democracy, although moving, sounds sophistical.” Indeed. At very least Reza Aslan deserves credit for novelty. But this Aslan is no lion. Violence? Misogyny? Yes, he says, it’s all there in Islam, but it’s because the “traditionalists” got an early stranglehold on the interpretation of the Qur’an, and fabricated Hadith in support of their views.


I don’t doubt that there is a huge number of Muslims that accept democratic ideals, but the idea that these ideals are “genuinely Islamic” has a hollow ring to it. If the fiendish “traditionalists” really wrested control of the Qur’an and Sunnah from those who believed in the “true Islam” early in Muslim history, what happened to the latter group? It would seem that if the Qur’an really taught all these things (democracy, pluralism, equality for women, tolerance of non-Muslims), the “traditionalists” would not have been able to stamp them out altogether without forbidding people to read the Qur’an. But the Qur’an has been widely read throughout Islamic history -- indeed, lionized and memorized and held up as the Muslim’s primary guide -- and yet there has never been, anywhere in the Islamic world, a tolerant, pluralistic democracy that respected non-Muslims as equals and upheld equality of rights for women. (Turkey established a democracy in the context of a war against Islam.)


Also, Aslan’s evident belief that Muhammad’s community in Medina was “a communal, egalitarian society dedicated to pluralism and tolerance” is laughably ahistorical. The Qur’an fourth sura (enjoining wife-beating, 4:34) and its ninth (enjoining perpetual warfare against Jews and Christians and their subjugation as inferiors under Islamic rule, 9:29) are both Medinan suras. It was while living in Medina that Muhammad massacred the Jewish Qurayza tribe, ordered the assassination of many of his opponents, and performed other acts of cruelty and barbarism. Does Reza Aslan not know all this? I know Pinch Sulzberger doesn’t, but does young Reza just not know anything about Muhammad, or does he hope we don’t know?


If he were a genuine Muslim reformer, he would speak honestly about the contents of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s career, and not pretend they are something they manifestly are not. But this is the sort of thing that gets you into the New York Times these days. This is the state of the free press today: if one were to write a book that dares to suggest that Islam and the theology and ideology of jihad might have something to do with today’s terrorism (which, of course, the terrorists themselves insist), the Times and its fellow travelers ignore it, unless they run a feature on the fictional offense of “Islamophobia” — cf. the Times’ hit piece on Bat Ye’or’s magisterial Eurabia.


Why would they ignore such a book? Because even to have a public debate about this question would be to grant legitimacy to this perspective, and make them have to answer it. Since it is true, they can’t answer it, so instead they resort to attempting to delegitimize it by treating it as if it were beneath notice and unworthy of discussion.


This is an extraordinarily irresponsible stance for the Times to take. Although it stems from the laudable desire to support moderate Muslims, it actually cuts the ground out from under the moderates they profess to be supporting. By forbidding discussion of the violence in the Qur’an and Muhammad’s career, they prevent the moderate Muslims they profess to support from coming to grips with the enormous challenge that the global jihadists have presented to them. The jihadists make recruits daily by referring to Qur’an and Hadith; but the moderates have no convincing response that will keep Muslims from becoming radicalized. And no one is pressing them to try to formulate such a response, because both left and right are pretending that the problem does not emanate from Islam’s core texts.


There are signs of hope. New groups such as Free Muslims Against Terrorism and the Center for Islamic Pluralism will perhaps soon address this problem, and formulate a comprehensive theology of Islam that refutes the jihadist version. This will begin the great work of countering jihadist recruitment among Muslims. But no one, not even the Times, should deceive himself into thinking that this work has already been done, or that Reza Aslan has done it.


Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch; author of Onward Muslim Soldiers: How Jihad Still Threatens America and the West (Regnery), and Islam Unveiled: Disturbing Questions About the World’s Fastest Growing Faith (Encounter); and editor of the essay collection The Myth of Islamic Tolerance: Islamic Law and Non-Muslims (Prometheus). He is working on a new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades (forthcoming from Regnery).

Robert Spencer is a scholar of Islamic history, theology, and law and the director of Jihad Watch. He is the author of eight books, eleven monographs, and hundreds of articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism, including the New York Times Bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book, Stealth Jihad: How Radical Islam is Subverting America without Guns or Bombs, is available now from Regnery Publishing.

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